Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ivanpah Solar Project May Displace or Kill Hundreds of Tortoises

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) now estimates that BrightSource Energy LLC's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System (ISEGS) could displace or kill as many as 140 desert adult tortoises, and hundreds of juveniles which are harder to detect during construction.   When the Department of Interior and California Energy Commission initially approved the project, located in the northeastern Mojave Desert, they expected to encounter 38 tortoises on the site.  However, according to the monthly biological compliance report, the construction crews working on the first phase of the project (only a third of the total project) had already displaced 49 tortoises as of February, strongly suggesting that initial biological surveys underestimated the potential biological impact of the project.  The project's destructive impacts leave many asking why BrightSource Energy chose to build its facility on pristine habitat when thousands of acres of already-disturbed land and open rooftops await solar panels.

Because the revised estimate is a significant departure from the project's expected impacts, the BLM re-opened consultations with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (lead agency on endangered species issues) to determine how to proceed.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) must issue a biological opinion  within 135 days.  Since the USFWS acknowledged the consultations on 28 March, an opinion may not be issued until August.

It's not clear if BrightSource Energy can continue to bulldoze the desert habitat on the project site, but the USFWS notification to the BLM pointed out that no "irreversible or irretrievable commitment of resources" should be allowed that could jeopardize "the continued existence of endangered or threatened species".   Sources close to the project expect bulldozers to begin clearing more land within the next week, however, which would seem to be an irreversible commitment of resources.

The news of revised tortoise estimates does not come as a surprise to some desert experts familiar with the project site.  Even during California Energy Commission hearings running up to the approval of the project last year, experts testified to the biological diversity on the pristine site.  Tortoise surveys highlighted a healthy and thriving tortoise population, which is uncommon for a species that is in decline throughout the rest of its range. A report titled "Status of the Species and Critical Habitat Range-wide" issued in September 2010 judged that the tortoise faces a "low potential of recovery, adjusted based on current uncertainties about various threats and our ability to manage them."  Improperly sited solar facilities are certainly a major threat to tortoise habitat.

BrightSource Energy's project is a flagship experiment, not just for the company, but for politicians spearheading a misguided energy policy that emphasizes continued destruction of public land for energy production.  Solar energy is a flexible technology, and panels on rooftops or already-disturbed land close to our cities can negate the need for expensive transmission lines and lost wildlands.

The project is not just impacting tortoises since the site is home to an abundance of special status birds and plants, including a new species of primrose.  The site probably serves as forage habitat for threatened bighorn sheep and golden eagles, as well.

Below is a copy of the memorandum sent from USFWS in response to BLM's request to re-open consultations.  The memo was provided by the BLM.
2011-TA-0253 ISEGS Memorandum

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A better response to the Atlantic Monthly

Chris Clarke over at Coyote Crossing posted an even better response to the Atlantic Monthly article I blogged about yesterday.  Chris deftly deconstructs Alexis Madrigal's article:
We’re one 22-word sentence into Madrigal’s piece, and I’ve spent almost four hundred words explaining what’s wrong with it. Given that the full piece runs to more than 3,300 words — and is at that only an excerpt of an upcoming book — the prospect of trying to tease some sense out of Madrigal’s writing is daunting.
...and tackles Madrigal's insidious attempt to paint Big Solar as a savior and redefine environmentalism in favor of industry:
The key is Madrigal’s misleading quote of ecologist Erle Ellis in a 2009 Wired Op-Ed. Ellis’ point was to attack the persistent view of nature and humanity, wilderness and society as somehow mutually exclusive. Ellis’ Op-Ed was deliberately provocative, hyperbolic even; there is much in it with which one could disagree. But it is in no way a call to pave wildlands for human convenience.
 Check it out...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In Response to the Atlantic Monthly

The Atlantic Monthly published an article today lamenting that "fledgling" solar energy companies face opposition from environmentalists in the quest to pave over the Mojave Desert with massive solar facilities and transmission lines.  The article ridicules our concern over endangered species, and demands an evolution in environmentalism so that we focus on human needs, and abandon what it describes as an outdated focus on conservation of nature far from humans.

The article sadly supports an old paradigm in energy generation, where companies are given unfettered access to public lands and we continue to pay inflated rates for electricity.  It ignores the real potential to cut greenhouse gasses by building distributed generation ("rooftop solar") or building larger facilities on already-disturbed land.  The EPA already identified ample disturbed land for renewable energy projects as part of its RE-powering America's Land program, and Germany is generating gigawatts of rooftop solar. 

Apparently the Atlantic Monthly could only spare enough time to hear the concerns of energy companies, and not listen to the reasonable concerns of the common folk.  In fact, all of the images they used were provided by BrightSource Energy LLC.  Painting an ideal picture of Big Solar is not easy, but the article included computer renderings of what BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar Energy project would look like, complete with an unrealistic mix of desert plants and solar mirrors coexisting on the same site.   What does the real project look like?  The photo below shows initial bulldozing done on the Ivanpah site.  Not as harmonious as the Atlantic Monthly would like you to believe.


The Atlantic's article underscores the danger of mixing the motives of green and greed, where companies exploit the real urgency of climate change to sell  a product that is as destructive and unecessary as the product it seeks to replace.  Like coating asbestos with lead paint,  Big Solar companies want to replace mountain-top removal coal mining with tortoise killing fields of glass and metal in the desert.  Just like West Virginia's mountains, desert ecosystems will take centuries to recover.

Atlantic's editor, Alexis Madrigal, failed to explore the potential for distributed generation, probably because his contacts in Big Solar cannot profit as much from rooftop solar panels.  They can't monopolize profits and acquire capital if individual homes, businesses, and towns have their own solar panels or windmills. That's too democratic.
The lives of a few dozen desert tortoises may very well improve as a result of the process [constructing the Ivanpah Solar project], but the opposition to Ivanpah raises questions about how unsympathetic some environmental groups are willing to be about the realities of running a solar firm that can compete with fossil fuels. 
Atlantic Monthly says we should be more "sympathetic" to Big Solar companies.  Yes, the renewable energy industry is in its infant stages and could benefit from encouragement.  But the industry also could benefit from leadership.  Big Solar wants to cut corners and destroy pristine desert for its facilities instead of building them where they belong -- on already-disturbed land or rooftops.   Such solar energy companies do not deserve our sympathy.

First Solar Inc, a company looking to build two projects next to BrightSource Energy's facility in the Ivanpah Valley,  is an example of the "fledgling," well-intentioned, private behemoths that the Atlantic wants to shield from public criticism.  I am not sure why.  First Solar executive Robert Gillette collected a salary of over 2.7 million dollars, and collected additional compensation that brought him up to 16 million dollars in a single fiscal year, according to Reuters.   First Solar's "non-executive" Chairman of the Board brought home over 4 million in a fiscal year.    All of that cash floating around, but they still need American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) loans and grants to finance their projects on public land.  I'll save my sympathy for the tortoise.

Finally, the Atlantic Monthly article argues that we need to abandon environmentalism that preserves places where there are "no humans," and focus on places "co-created" by humans.  The article suggests that we should admire Big Solar's attempts to bulldoze pristine desert for profit as a new frontier in environmental thought.
Note that this environmentalism is not nature, endangered species, or wilderness focused: It is concerned, first and foremost, with humans. Clean and safe were more important than "natural." The suburban housewives and baseball dads who supported the passage of the nation's landmark environmental legislation were not interested in biomes, per se: They cared about the places that humans co-created, or, as ecologist Erle Ellis calls them, anthromes.
Humans have learned to "co-create" the desert already.  Native American tribes harvested seeds, hunted jackrabbits and bighorn sheep, and burned vegetation to support next year's crop of food-producing plants.  But they did not need to destroy vast swaths of habitat to run refrigerators or air conditioners.  We don't need to either -- we have empty rooftops, parking lots, and already-disturbed land.  Solar is an amazing technology.  When I was nine years old I was already using solar energy -- solar powered calculators and watches.  Why do we ignore solar's potential and flexibility? 

Perhaps the Atlantic author toured the desert from the comfort of his rental car before dining with solar executives.  Or maybe he toured it from Google Earth.  Either way, he seems to think of the desert as his dump.  But the desert is my wilderness, and it provides me with inspiration, solitude, spirituality, and comfort.  There are humans here, and there have been humans in the desert for a long time.  Just because Wall Street only discovered the Mojave last year does not give it any right to pave over it with greed, and rob future generations of the natural beauty that graced us long before we became dependent on corporations for our survival.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Supreme Court Favors Citizens in Fight Against Trash Dump

The Supreme Court today denied a petition by Kaiser Eagle Mountain Inc. in its quest to operate a landfill near Joshua Tree National Park.  The company filed an appeal to the Supreme Court claiming that the 9th Circuit Court wrongfully ruled in favor of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and concerned citizens Donna and Larry Charpied in 2009.  In that earlier ruling, the 9th Circuit decided that a land swap between the company and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)--which was necessary for the company to operate the landfill--was conducted illegally.  More specifically, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that the BLM broke the National Environmental Policy Act when it constructed the "purpose and needs"statement in its evaluation of the project based on the goals of the company, and not the BLM's own goals.  

Although ruling against the landfill project, the 9th Circuit was also critical of the Charpieds, disagreeing with their claim that BLM's assessment of impacts on Bighorn Sheep was inadequate and questioning their legal standing.   Regardless, the Charpieds and the NPCA persisted against the Eagle Mountain landfill as the company appealed to the highest court.  The persistence paid off today when the Supreme Court agreed with the 9th Circuit's overall decision against the company, killing the Eagle Mountain landfill proposal.

The Supreme Court's decision comes a month after the Department of the Interior announced that it would not argue in favor of the company, reversing its longstanding support for the project.  If the company were permitted to operate the landfill, it would truck 20,000 tons of garbage to the dump each day during 24 hour operations.  The traffic would add to air pollution, and the garbage would support a larger raven population, which would prey upon endangered tortoises in the Joshua Tree National Park.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Climate Change Likely to Reduce Range of Joshua Tree

Global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions is expected to eliminate the iconic Joshua Tree (Yucca breviolia) from 90% of its current range within 60-90 years.  The tree is likely to be limited to the northern portion of its range, according to a study led by the US Geological Survey that looked at how the tree reacted to a sudden climate warming approximately 12,000 years ago.  

A Johusa Tree in the west Mojave Desert, where urban development continues to wipe out swaths of desert habitat.
The climate study notes that the sudden warming period in the past reduced the Joshua Tree's range, and the extinction of the giant Shasta ground sloth since that time slowed the tree's ability to reclaim lost territory.  The giant ground sloth used to feed on the seeds of the Joshua Tree and spread them far and wide.  Today, small rodents such as squirrels and packrats still feed on the seeds, but do no carry them as far. 

Climate change poses a double threat to desert ecosystems since some energy companies are seeking to destroy desert habitat in order to build massive solar facilities and meet increasing demand for renewable energy sources.   However, energy experts and public land advocates recommend increasing distributed generation (also known as "rooftop solar"), which involves putting solar panels in our cities and is not as destructive or costly as building large utility-scale solar facilities in the middle of the desert.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Six Billion Dollar High Speed Train Moves Forward, With Taxpayer Help

The proposed high-speed train line known as the "Desert Xpress" received final environmental approval this week from the Federal Railroad Administration, according to KCET.  The rail would link the City of Victorville with Las Vegas, crossing through the Mojave Desert, and cost at least 6 billion dollars.  The private company proposing the rail line expects a 4.9 billion dollar loan backed by taxpayers to finance most of the project.  As noted on KCET's blog, the rail line has been criticized by citizens as a waste of taxpayer funds and an unwise choice for private investors.  Most travel between Las Vegas and California comes from the Los Angeles basin --why would drivers abandon their cars in Victorville to hop on the train?  And can the line generate enough traffic to pay off the investment?

Most of the line follows the same route as Interstate 15, but the additional infrastructure is expected to compound ecological harm in some areas.  Most notably, the rail line would cut through the Ivanpah Valley--which straddles the California/Nevada border--where the desert tortoise population is already under siege by multiple solar energy projects that threaten to bulldoze over 20 square miles of pristine desert in the area.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Calico and Ridgecrest Solar Projects Haunt Pristine Desert

Two different solar companies--Solar Millennium LLC and K Road Power--have officially revived proposals to build solar power projects on public land in the Mojave Desert.  Both projects have been heavily criticized by biologists and taxpayers (and some biologists that pay taxes) as a waste of money and public land.

Calico Solar Project 
K Road Power (and its subsidiary K Road Solar) filed a petition with the California Energy Commission (CEC) on 22 March to modify the original Calico Solar power project, that was approved by the CEC last year.  The company that initially proposed and won approval for the Calico Solar power project--Tessera Solar LLC--could not afford to build the project, and sold the rights to public land to K Road Power.   That company is now proposing slight changes to the original proposal, calling for a mix of photovoltaic panels and the "Suncatcher" design.  Because K Road Solar is changing the original design, they should have to submit to a new environmental review process because photovoltaic panels will alter water flows and landscape in different ways than the original Suncatcher dishes.

K Road Power must also track two separate legal challenges against the State of California and the Federal Government challenging the approval of the project.  The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit challenging California's rushed approval of the project without fully considering the impact on wildlife and the effectiveness of mitigation measures.  The second legal challenge was filed by a coalition of Native Americans and concerned citizens against the Department of Interior's decision to allow the Calico project to destroy over 7 square miles of pristine public land without fully considering impacts on sites of historical significance to Native American tribes and the cumulative ecological damage.

The Calico Solar power project would bulldoze land all the way to the Cady Mountains in the background, displacing or killing dozens of desert tortoises and eliminating a pocket of white-margined beardtongue--a rare desert wildflower.
Ridgecrest Solar Power Project
On 24 March, Solar Millennium LLC submitted a petition to the CEC asking to temporarily suspend consideration of the Ridgecrest Solar power project until the company can evaluate the outcome of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) for opportunities to build the project.  The company previously abandoned the project because even the CEC staff indicated that the project would destroy over 6 square miles of public land that hosts thriving populations and corridors for the threatened desert tortoise and Mohave ground squirrel.  

The DRECP is in the process of identifying lands that may be suitable for solar energy development, and other lands that should be set aside for conservation.  Solar Milllennium LLC is likely hoping that the DRECP will identify lands in the vicinity of its originally proposed project as suitable for development, giving it hope that it can build the project.   However, the CEC proceedings indicate that biologists have identified the Ridgecrest site as a wildlife corridor for the Mohave ground squirrel, which is under consideration for endangered species protections.  The site also hosts an unusually high density of desert tortoises.  At least 40 desert tortoises were observed on the site during surveys.

A rendering of how the desert shrub habitat would be transformed to make way for the  Ridgecrest Solar power project.  At least 40 endangered desert tortoises would be displaced or killed by the project.
These two projects represent some of the worst siting decisions by solar power companies, which chose some of the most pristine and ecologically sensitive public lands to destroy.  They have also become banner projects for critics of utility-scale solar power, which is more expensive and less efficient than rooftop solar panels or smaller solar projects closer to urban centers.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Environmental Organizations Say Gray Wolf is No Longer Endangered

Earlier this month, ten environmental organizations signed a letter asking a judge to remove populations of the gray wolf in Idaho and Montana from the endangered species list, but allowing the Wyoming, Washington and Oregon populations to remain on the list.  The settlement letter was signed by some notable groups, to include the Sierra Club, Natural Resource Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife.

Decisions on whether or not to remove a species from the endangered list is usually based on a scientific evaluation of that species' recovery, not political decisions and boundaries.  In fact, a judge said so last year in a decision that supported the environmental groups' efforts at the time to maintain the wolf's endangered species protections in Idaho and Montana.  Now the environmental groups are asking that same judge to reverse his decision and de-list the gray wolf based on political boundaries.


The blogger Chris Clarke summed it up on his Coyote Crossing page:
In [the previous court] victory, Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the species could not plausibly be said to consist of distinct populations whose boundaries hew closely to state lines, and thus if wolves in the northern Wyoming part of Yellowstone were endangered, then wolves a hundred yards away in the southern Montana portion of Yellowstone must necessarily be as well.


 ...Under the terms of the settlement, the feds will come up with some jury-rigged taxonomy that allows delisting of specific populations of gray wolves whose boundaries are tailored as closely as possible to fit the state lines of Idaho and Montana. 
Some of the groups argued that if they did not agree to this settlement, Republican congressmen would have introduced legislation that would have de-listed the wolf anyways.  Other groups argued that the wolf's protections were mired in litigation, and a compromise is necessary for progress in the species' recovery.  Either way, the settlement letter is asking the judge to allow the Department of the Interior to break the law.  To de-list the wolf based on political boundaries.  Is this the precedent we want to set in Endangered Species Act law?  That elected officials can strong-arm civil society into sacrificing endangered species based on emotion and rhetoric, and not on scientific facts?

What did the environmental organizations get in return for the settlement?  A promise by state wildlife officials that they would not drive the wolf back to extinction by allowing excessive hunting.  Nothing binding.  And the Congress could still take aim at the Endangered Species Act.

Yes, we need to collaborate and coordinate with various stakeholders, whether they are energy companies, ranchers, off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, or hunters.  And I don't think the groups involved want to see the wolf driven to the brink of extinction.  But what if state wildlife agencies decide to hunt wolves to perilous limits, gas wolf pups in their dens, and Congress decides to set even more political conditions on what should be a scientific program?  What ground will environmental organizations have to stand on when they were willing to turn their back on science and the Endangered Species Act in favor of political compromise? 

So what does this have to do with California's deserts?  Wolves used to inhabit the Providence Mountains in what is now the Mojave National Preserve.  You can still hear and see coyotes in the Preserve, but hopefully someday visitors will once again hear the wolf's howl ring across the Mojave. 

If you want to let Defenders of Wildlife know your concerns about the settlement, they have invited your opinion at this website.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Desert Wildflowers Begin to Bloom

It's that time of year.  After heavy rains in late December, and some smaller showers in February, the desert wildflowers have begun to bloom.   I find the best source for updates on the status of the bloom is the Desert USA website, which posts photos and information submitted by readers who are fanning out across the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  The updates are organized by region and park, although some areas are not updated as frequently as others.

You can also visit the Anza Borrego blog for updates on widlflower blooms in the vicinity of Anza Borrego State Park.  Apparently there are some great blooms in the Sonoran Desert, and the blog has some amazing photos to back it up. 

Throughout the California deserts, the lower elevation areas are probably the best bet for a fuller bloom right now.  High elevation deserts might need some more time to catch up.   Stay tuned...

Close-up photo of what I believe may be sand verbena.  Amboy Crater in 2008


  
Another flower that seems to appreciate the sandy soils around Amboy Crater.


Amboy Crater, 2008

Friday, March 18, 2011

Mark Your Calendars...

A few opportunities coming up to enjoy the splendors of the outdoors or speak up for wise desert land use:

Mojave Desert Land Trust service events:
Either one of these events would be a great excuse to get out to the desert, see some spring wildflower blooms, camp, and volunteer! The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) asks that you pre-register by sending an email to Mizuki Seita at mizseita@gmail.com.  You can find more details at the MDLT website.

On 26 March, Saturday, you can volunteer to restore desert habitat in Lanfair, in the Mojave National Preserve.

On 23 April, Saturday, you can help with cleanup and restoration work at the Trust's recently acquired Quail Mountain property just next to Joshua Tree National Park.

Sierra Club Cactus Count:
The Desert Protective Council wants to remind you that there are in fact Saguaro cactus in California.  Many folks are used to seeing the various cholla cactus and barrel cactus in California's deserts, but few realize that the Saguaro can be found in the Whipple Mountains Wilderness area near the border with Arizona. 

From 26-28 March, the Sierra Club will support a count of the Saguaro cactus in a portion of the wilderness area.  The Club will meet on 26 March at the BLM Needles office before heading down to the Whipple Mountains and camp.  You can contact Vicky.Hoover@sierraclub.org, and the Desert Protective Council has posted some more details regarding the project on their site.

Public Comment Sessions for Marine Base Expansion:
As mentioned previously on this blog, the Marines have proposed withdrawing public land in order to expand the boundary of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base.  Much of the land is currently designated as the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) area.  Although some of the desert habitat is severely degraded due to the OHV use, the combat training would still have impacts on some areas of higher habitat quality.  You can review the draft environmental impact study here.  The Marine Corps will host three public meetings on the proposed expansion:
  • Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 5 to 9 p.m., Copper Mountain College, Bell Center Gym, 6162 Rotary Way, Joshua Tree, Calif.
  • Wednesday, April 13, 2011, 5 to 9 p.m., Ontario High School Gym, 901 W. Francis St, Ontario, Calif
  • Thursday, April 14, 2011, 5 to 9 p.m., Hilton Garden Inn Conference Center, 12603 Mariposa Rd., Victorville, Calif
Solar Programmatic EIS Comment Period Extension:
The Departments of Interior and Energy extended the comment period for the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Study, a policy to make 21 million acres of mostly pristine desert available to energy companies.  You now have until 16 April to submit comments.  You can read more about the shortcomings of the Programmatic EIS here. You can access and learn more about the Solar PEIS at the government website here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Victorville Chases Fool's Gold

The City of Victorville, one of the largest population centers in the western Mojave Desert, is nearing insolvency under nearly $500 million of debt, according to the Wall Street Journal.  Victorville has mishandled millions of dollars of bonds accounts and shifted funds without city council authorization.   The city has already slashed many of its employees from the payroll, and many citizens complain of deteriorating infrastructure and crime.  Nevertheless, Victorville is still investing in ambitious and unnecessary plans, such as a 32 square mile expansion and the High Desert Corridor (E-220), a new highway connecting Lancaster and Victorville.   Most residents probably would prefer the City reinvest in existing infrastructure and open up a new east-west route within the city (the Nisqualli overpass) to alleviate burdensome traffic before expanding the city limits and building an unwanted highway.

Victorville officials ran up some of the 500 million in debt when consultants promised an economic revival if the city invested millions in the airport and a power plant on airport property.  Neither project did so well, and the airport authority is still running a $101 million deficit.

California historians can tell you about other desert towns that crashed as a result of corruption, mismanaged expectations, and greed.  Speculators chased dreams of silver deposits and agricultural abundance throughout the Mojave in the late 1800s.  Scam artists would bring wide-eyed investors from Los Angeles up to the desert and promise them wealth in return for investment.  Most of the aspiring agricultural fields went fallow and most mines turned up fool's gold.  It appears history is repeating itself in Victorville.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Distributed Generation Can Save the Desert

According to an interview of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) president Michael Peevey by mydesert.com, the State of California supports distributed solar generation (such as rooftop solar) and is in favor of policy changes that makes it easier for taxpayers and businesses to benefit from distributed generation.  The State's support for distributed generation is critical to the preservation of desert wildlands, since solar installations in our cities and on our rooftops are far more efficient and economical than massive facilities in the middle of the desert.

Clearing the Way for Distributed Generation

According to CPUC president Peevey, he is staunchly in favor of Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), which allows a homeowner to finance a rooftop solar installation over time through their property tax.   Rooftop solar generally increases property values, and cuts down electricity costs over time.   Peevey criticized the Federal Housing Finance Administration (FHFA), the agency that regulates mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for opposing PACE programs.   The FHFA position on PACE has proven to be a major hurdle to distributed generation.

Peevey also encouraged local communities to push for feed-in-tariffs, which allows home and business owners to receive credits for excess energy generated through rooftop solar that is fed back into the grid.  Peevey noted, however, that utility companies are not enthusiastic about feed-in-tariffs.

Steering Away From Desert Destruction

Over the past two years, the Department of Interior has approved several large utility-scale projects that will destroy dozens of square miles of pristine desert and necessitate hundreds of miles of expensive new transmission lines.  Distributed generation is gaining ground, however, since megawatts of rooftop solar installations are being installed throughout the United States, and a recent study by UCLA found that rooftops in the Los Angeles area alone could support 5,500 megawatts of solar installations.  The LA rooftop solar potential is five times the amount of energy that will be produced by the massive Blythe solar power project being built on desert habitat, according to Solar Done Right.

Meanwhile, the massive desert-killing projects are threatened by lack of private investment, Congressional plans to slash the Department of Energy loan guarantees, and legal challenges filed by citizens concerned over the projects' environmental consequences.  A single project being constructed by BrightSource Energy LLC in the northeastern Mojave Desert has already displaced or killed upwards of 50 endangered desert tortoises.

Distributed generation, supported by feed-in-tariffs and PACE, is a sensible solution to climate change that can keep destructive energy projects off of pristine desert.

Update on Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard

The US Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) decision not to list the flat-tailed horned lizard as an endangered species has been posted online, and a PDF copy is available below via scribd.  The lizard inhabits sandy hardpan or gravel flats in the Coachella Valley and Sonoran Desert, which lies south of the Mojave Desert ecosystem.

The assessment confirms that the Coachella Valley population of the flat-tailed horned lizard will likely see significant threats within the foreseeable future, and admits that the Coachella Valley Habitat Conservation Plan has not yet preserved the lizard's last remaining habitat in the area.   Nonetheless, because of conservation and land management efforts throughout the rest of its range, the USFWS believes the species remains viable and does not warrant endangered status.

FTHL ruling FWS-R8-ES-2010-0008-0042

Monday, March 14, 2011

US Rules Not to Protect Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard

According to the Los Angeles Times, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided not to list the Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard on the Endangered Species list after reviewing the proposal since last year.  The lizard has been relegated to a fraction of its former range--which used to span the Sonoran Desert--but the USFWS assessed that inter-agency and local conservation efforts have set aside sufficient land to keep the species viable.

Despite the ruling, the lizard still faces a slew of threats from illegal off-highway vehicle use, solar energy facilities, new transmission lines, and urban growth, which continue to constrain its remaining habitat.  One massive solar facility--the Imperial Valley Solar power project--would deprive the flat-tailed horned lizard of nearly 9.6 square miles of habitat.  USFWS acknowledges that some threats from energy development persists, but judges that the energy applications do not threaten the designated management areas.

Regarding urban encroachment on the lizard's habitat, the USFWS assessed that the Coachella Valley Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan will protect the flat-tailed horned lizard from habitat loss in part of its range.  The habitat conservation plan, however, has preserved 25% of its goal of 240,000 acres, suggesting it is still a work in progress.

The full USFWS ruling will be made available at www.regulations.gov tomorrow (15 March 2011), according to the USFWS press release.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Research Highlights Deserts' Role in Sequestering Carbon

New research by the University of California suggests we should take a harder look at the potential carbon sequestration capacity of America's deserts.  According to the study, disturbing approximately 11 square miles of desert habitat could release 6,000 metric tons of carbon per year.  That is roughly the equivalent of putting a fleet of 5,300 SUVs on the road, each traveling 120 miles per month.  Desert plants and soil organisms take in and store tons of carbon each year.   When the desert habitat is destroyed, not only does it lose its ability to capture and store carbon, but carbon locked into the soils is likely to be released. According to the study:
When desert plants grow, they absorb carbon dioxide (CO2). The carbons (C), as sugars, move into the roots and soil organisms.  Carbon dioxide is respired back into the soil, part of which reacts with calcium (Ca) in the soil to form calcium carbonate.  This is how our deserts sequester large amounts of C and thus function to reduce atmospheric CO2.  The magnitude of this carbon storage function is still a crucial research question and remains unknown for our California deserts.
The study, which can be downloaded from Basin and Range Watch's website, also highlights the potentially unknown cumulative impacts that will result from plans to bulldoze hundreds of square miles of desert for proposed solar facilities.   The Department of Interior is rushing to destroy vast swaths of desert even when major ecological questions remain unanswered, including how climate change will impact endangered species' habitat and migration paths, trends in invasive plant species, and impacts on groundwater resources. 

As an example, the report notes that a typical solar facilities will use millions of gallons of groundwater each year, which is likely to affect plants like the Amargosa nitewort and wildlife like the desert pupfish.  These dangers are real.  Just recently, the Nevada Public Utilities Commission approved Solar Millennium's Amargosa Solar power project. The 250MW solar facility in the Mojave Desert will use three water wells to pump nearly 1,300 acre-feet of water each year to run steam generators, according to the environmental impact statement.  A single acre foot of water is the equivalent of 325,851 gallons, so the project would be using well over 423 million gallons of water each year.  Biologists are concerned that this draw on groundwater will lower spring-fed pools in nearby desert habitat that host rare desert pupfish and support treasured aquatic habitats. 

Wasting millions of gallons of water, releasing thousands of tons of carbon, destroying habitat, and pushing species toward extinction -- this does not sound like "green" energy.  Ironically, massive concentrating solar power facilities that destroy desert habitat--such as the Amargosa project--have already been rendered obsolete by rooftop solar panels that avoid all of the pitfalls of middle-of-the-desert facilities, and do not require hundreds of miles of expensive transmission lines...the Department of Interior just refuses to recognize this development.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

DC Favors Joshua Tree National Park, but Leaves Butterfly Hanging

In late February, the Department of Interior reversed its longstanding position in favor of a landfill just outside of Joshua Tree National Park.  For 24 years the Department of Interior supported legal efforts by a company to establish the world's largest landfill just outside of Joshua Tree National Park, where several square miles of canyons would have been filled with 20,000 tons of garbage each day.  The trash, and 24 hour dumping operations would have brought air pollution and subsidized predators that threaten the protected ecosystems that provide peace to many visitors each year.  Over 1.4 million Americans visited Joshua Tree National Park last year, and they came to see beautiful desert vistas, wildlife, and wildflowers, not trash.

The efforts to reverse Department of Interior's position were spearheaded by two citizens concerned about misguided policy in California's deserts--Donna and Larry Charpied.  At issue is the landfill company's proposed land swap, trading private land for the public land near the Park necessary to operate the dump.  A lower court rejected the land swap, but the company appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court.  Until the recent victory, Interior supported the company's appeal.  Without Interior's support, the landfill company's petition before the Supreme Court is weakened, although the Court has yet to rule on the matter.

The iconic namesake of Joshua Tree National Park.
Just this past week, however, Washington DC dealt a blow to Mojave Desert conservation issues when it denied endangered species protection for the rare Mount Charleston blue butterfly, which is found in the mountains just west of Las Vegas, Nevada.  Desert biologists believe the species needs Federal protection or it is likely to go extinct.  The Department of Interior ruled that endangered status is warranted for the butterfly, but because of resource constraints it cannot offer protection.  Placed on the waiting list can doom a rare species, and the Obama administration has been less vigilant about endangered species act compared to either the George W. Bush or Clinton administrations.  Twenty-four species have gone extinct while on the list.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California

I just finished reading A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California by Laura Cunningham.  The author uses her experience as a biologist and artist to reconstruct ecosystems and interactions of California's past using what we know of nature today.  You do not need to be a biologist to appreciate this experience. The book will take you to California's shoreline, oak savannas,  a pristine Delta ecosystem, and deserts, allowing you to observe the interactions among plant and wildlife as it existed in the past.  But this is not just a history book, either.  The author uses her field work observing relict or remaining populations of natural life to reconstruct the past and explain how these landscapes continue to evolve today.  For example, she vividly describes and sketches the majestic California condor and how it behaves with other birds based on hours of her own studies, and recounts her observation of elk herds being stalked by wolves in Yellowstone, where the two species still interact.  She walks you through today's grasslands to explain how they once functioned with greater biological diversity.

After reading A State of Change I have a much better appreciation for the natural wonders that we have already lost--I feel as if I have personally experienced these "forgotten landscapes"--and I am more acutely aware of the natural wonders we must work to protect today.

You can find the book at Amazon --and it is available through the Desert Protective Council bookstore, which is the same as buying it from Amazon except a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Desert Protective Council's work. 

BrightSource Energy Mitigation Plan Falls Short

Basin and Range Watch posted a review of the proposed desert tortoise habitat mitigation plan being considered by BrightSource Energy LLC.  The company's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System is being built on 5.6 square miles of public land, and has already displaced as many as 50 endangered desert tortoises.   As part of it's agreement allowing the company to bulldoze and operate on public land, the company must purchase several thousand acres of privately held desert as mitigation -- the land must serve as good quality desert tortoise habitat and habitat for other special status species affected by the massive solar project.

The mitigation land under consideration near the Castle Peaks in the northeastern Mojave Desert is mostly at an elevation higher than 4,000 feet, which is above the average range of the desert tortoise.  The proposed site also does not host many of the rare plants that will be destroyed by the Ivanpah solar project

Desert experts have raised serious doubt over the ability of solar energy companies to acquire a sufficient amount of private land that can serve as compensatory mitigation.  BrightSource Energy's consideration of the Castle Peak's land is indicative of this problem, which is the result of false assumptions that were not adequately examined during Federal and State environmental review processes.  Western Watersheds Project filed a legal challenge against the Federal government for essentially giving BrightSource Energy a free pass during the review, failing to adequately consider the cumulative impacts of the project and segmenting its review of the solar project and a transmission line that would be required for the power plant to become functional.

Meanwhile, the Ivanpah Valley faces the potential of even greater destruction, as First Solar Inc considers building two massive solar facilities on over 15 square miles of pristine desert.