Sierra Club Lawsuit Tossed Out by Court; Calico Site in Jeopardy

The California Supreme Court this month denied a petition by the Sierra Club that challenged the California Energy Commission's (CEC) inadequate environmental review for the Calico Solar power project.  A similar legal challenge by California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) was also thrown out by the court.  The Calico Solar power project was initially proposed by Tessera Solar LLC and approved by the CEC and Department of Interior last year.  Tessera Solar has since sold the project rights to K Road Power (aka K Road Solar), which is proposing to modify the 7.2 square mile project to use more photovoltaic panels to supplement Tessera Solar's disastrous SunCatchers.

One of many desert tortoises inhabiting the pristine desert where K Road Power plans to build a massive solar facility.  Photo courtesy of Basin and Range Watch.
The court decision is unwelcome news for concerned citizens who point to the Calico site's rich biodiversity and abundant desert tortoise population as a poor choice for solar development.  Many citizens and organizations also expressed concerns echoed in the Sierra Club's legal challenge that the CEC and Department of Interior improperly assessed the environmental impacts of the solar project.  The environmental review did not adequately consider the cumulative impacts of the Calico project, and fails to identify risks associated with desert tortoise translocation and neglects to identify appropriate sites to receive translocated tortoises. 

In addition to at least two dozen desert tortoises that would be displaced or killed if the project is built, the site also hosts a rare batch of white-margined beardtongue, burrowing owls, Mojave fringe-toed lizards and foraging habitat for bighorn sheep that inhabit the nearby Cady Mountains.  Desert biologists have also noted that the estimate for desert tortoises on the Calico site could be misleading.  In the case of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System in the northeastern Mojave Desert, which is currently under construction,  the Department of Interior only expected to displace or kill 34 tortoises.  They now estimate that the project will kill or displace 140 tortoises.
White-margined beardtongue, found on the Calico site and only a few other places in America's southwestern deserts.
The California court decision paves the way for K Road Power to continue its plans to modify and build the project, pending a new approval process by the California Energy Commission and presumably the Department of Interior.  The CEC has already requested data from K Road Power so that it can re-evaluate the project's impacts.

What's Next for Calico?
Will the Sierra Club move on to Federal courts and challenge the Department of Interior's approval of the poorly-sited Calico Solar project?  Will Governor Jerry Brown's more sensible renewable energy policy lead the CEC to reconsider its approval?  The CEC boasted about the court's decision to toss out the legal challenge, but in the same month the Los Angeles Times questioned the sensibility of building solar facilities on pristine desert instead of already-disturbed land, and a group known as Solar Done Right issued a report blasting the White House's plans to give up hundreds of square miles of public land for solar development while ignoring the promise of distributed generation and availability of already-disturbed land.

If bulldozers are tearing up ancient desert shrubs and burying tortoises in their burrows this fall, as K Road Power hopes, it will ultimately be a decision America regrets.  The sun is baking empty rooftops and fallow agricultural land all across the West.  We have an opportunity to curb greenhouse gas emissions and save open space.  Keep Calico pristine.

You can stay informed with California's re-evaluation of K Road Power's proposal on the CEC's website for the project.  The CEC is hosting a public meeting and visit to the site on 20 April.

A tortoise emerging from it's burrow (foreground) on the proposed site for the Calico Solar power project.  Photo courtesy of Basin and Range Watch.



The proposed Calico Solar project would pave over pristine desert up to the Cady Mountains, shown in the distant background.

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