Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sierra Club: Make Up Your Mind on Ivanpah

Will we listen to biologists, or First Solar's corporate executives? It seems like the obvious choice for an environmental organization would be to listen to the scientists that have declared Ivanpah Valley too ecologically important to bulldoze for additional solar projects.  For the Sierra Club, I'm still not sure which path we have chosen.

As a Sierra Club member, I am frustrated that my organization remains irresolute regarding the future of the Ivanpah Valley.  The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign has recognized the ecological significance of Ivanpah, and earlier this year encouraged members nationwide to submit comments on  the Department of Interior's Solar Programmatic EIS supplement that mentioned Ivanpah as an area not suitable for additional solar projects. Yet the Club now appears to be working to find a way to permit more large solar projects in this treasured place.

On 21 March, the Sierra Club's Toiyabe Chapter met with First Solar, probably giving their blessing to the Silver State South solar project, and a "conservation" plan for what is left of Ivanpah that is likely to be heavily influenced by First Solar's corporate lawyers and not biologists.  If built, Silver State South would obstruct one of the narrowest parts of the Ivanpah Valley wildlife corridor. The Sierra Club may think it is trying to "mitigate" the impacts of Silver State South, which is the much larger second phase to First Solar's Silver State North project, but any further industrial development in this narrow strip of desert habitat will have significant harmful effects, according to biologists.

This Google Earth image shows the approximate project right-of-ways for the solar projects proposed or under construction in the Ivanpah Valley
The US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended in 2011 that the Ivanpah Valley be off limits to more solar development, Basin and Range Watch submitted a proposal in August to manage this land for conservation, and hundreds of citizens expressed their support for saving Ivanpah in a petition.   If more desert habitat in Ivanpah is destroyed, biologists assess that a critical desert tortoise linkage will be lost, essentially isolating tortoise populations and depriving this threatened species of much needed resiliency.  How do we expect our desert ecosystems to survive climate change and other man-made challenges when we ignore science and smooth the way for habitat destruction?   We applaud NASA climate scientists for pointing out the impacts of fossil fuels, yet we dismiss the concerns raised by biologists regarding the Ivanpah Valley. This is selective hearing, and sets a bad precedent if we want to lead the country to a more sustainable energy future.

The desert tortoise needs creosote bush scrub habitat at lower elevations to maintain habitat connectivity. The First Solar right-of-way (in purple) would destroy much of the suitable habitat at one of the narrowest points in the Ivanpah Valley linkage.  This is simply not the right place for a solar project.
There seems to be a disconnect at the local level of Sierra Club's membership. The Toiyabe Chapter seems intent on allowing additional solar development in Ivanpah, while the Sierra Club's Desert Committee voted to support the Ivanpah Area of Critical Environmental Concern proposal put on the table by Basin and Range Watch.  The Sierra Club's leadership, meanwhile, has not weighed in with a specific position on First Solar's projects (Silver State South or Stateline).  After facilitating First Solar's massive projects near Joshua Tree National Park and in California's Carrizo Plain, one would think that Sierra Club leadership has the leverage to dissuade First Solar from pursuing projects in Ivanpah.

We have to be resolute in protecting our most ecologically sensitive places from any energy development.  The Ivanpah Valley is one of those places.  Working with the solar industry to keep projects away from such treasures is one thing, but now that First Solar has proposed destroying Ivanpah, any agreement with First Solar will give them the "green" stamp of approval they need to sail through BLM review.  There is no more margin of error afforded to us in Ivanpah. 

At the very least we should be vocal and consistent in our opposition to such poorly sited projects.  Telling members nationwide to urge Interior to keep Ivanpah off limits to industrial energy development, and then turning around to help First Solar earn a "green" stamp of approval for bulldozing that same land is misleading.  The Sierra Club has taken positive steps by encouraging distributed generation, and urging mandatory guidelines for the wind energy industry, but we are missing an opportunity for leadership in Ivanpah, since each of the projects proposed there will set a new precedent for access to some of our most ecologically sensitive desert wildlands.   If we are not willing to protect Ivanpah, then we have lost sight of our conservation ethic, and I am left wondering at what point in time the renewable energy industry began to redefine our values.

1 comment:

  1. I does not help matters that several (with more joining the camp) ecologists are now on board with 'ecosystems services', where such trade offs are partnering with monetizing and capitalizing nature. It is more commonplace now to have industry members on the boards of our once-revered environmental organizations. So we have a growing infiltration of capitalizing nature and its ecosystems, and pressure to incorporate ecosystems into the global economics games. And these industries are now an attractive source of funding for environmental organizations, creating conflicting interests and goals.

    Perhaps members, and even non-members, should start reminding these organizations of their founding ethics and goals. Which is what I did when receiving my annual re-subscription. Instead of a check, the return envelope was stuffed with a letter chastising their recent behavior along with copies of several articles commenting on their involvement in issues as you describe above. In also included a copy of one of Dr. Sian Sullivan's papers (Univ. College of London) that critically dissects the capitalization of global ecosystems and the role of many environmental organizations.

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