Monday, August 6, 2012

Desert Lands Policy: Uncertainty Sends Stakeholders Scrambling

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) process is proving surprising in how much it could affect -- for good or bad -- California's desert landscape, and it is about to move to the stage of the process that begins to finalize proposed policies in an environmental impact statement (EIS) and record of decision. The aim of the DRECP is to craft a land management policy that would direct renewable energy development to lands assessed to be of lesser ecological importance, and designate other swaths of land as inappropriate for development.
You may be thinking: didn't the Department of Interior just finalize its solar energy policy in the desert? The answer is a qualified yes.  Interior published the final environmental impact statement for its solar energy development policy, which will mostly give the renewable energy industry freedom to build wherever it wants on our southwestern desert wildlands, with a few exceptions.  But the DRECP is like a second layer of this policy, going into more detail that a.) applies only to California's deserts and b.) applies to both wind and solar energy projects.   For a great overview of the DRECP alternatives and implications, check out this KCET article.
The DRECP agencies -- including the California Energy Commission (CEC), Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the California Department of Fish and Game -- have drafted up five alternative scenarios with different balances of "development focus areas" and "conservation areas," which is how the plan describes areas appropriate for energy development and desert habitat that should be protected.  Solar and wind projects in development focus areas would essentially be "fast-tracked", and projects in conservation areas presumably would be rejected or slowed down.

DRECP Another Phase of a Struggle
Land and wildlife officials realize that there are tremendous burdens on California's desert ecosystems from various industries, the military, and the public.  People want wide open landscapes, clean energy, and places for recreation and enjoyment. Industry wants to make money, whether that is through wind turbines or open pit mines.  Our public lands have always been in the bullseye for these competing interests, and the pressures of an expanding human population in the desert region make the situation all the more difficult.  The DRECP is part of this long struggle of balancing competing demands in the desert, and as with any policymaking process, the door is open for industry to forge rules (or the lack thereof) that are favorable to its primary objective -- profit.   The renewable energy industry is an especially demanding "stakeholder", and its default position has been to seek access to as much land as possible with little or no safeguards for wildlife.

 What we do know of the DRECP process so far is that scientific evaluation by the DRECP agencies has identified large areas of the desert as needing protection from industrial development in order to ensure the long-term viability of the ecosystem and to allow pre-existing uses of the desert, including off-highway vehicle (OHV) open recreation areas and military training needs. Many of the development focus areas in the western Mojave Desert and southeastern desert (part of the Sonoran Desert region) would fall on lands classified as "already-disturbed"-- an apparent attempt by DRECP planners to use spaces closer to where the energy is needed and to reduce impacts on biological resources. Other development focus areas, however, would still fall on intact desert lands.

What we don't know is which DRECP alternative the various agencies will select as their "preferred alternative" in the draft EIS, and whether or not conservation areas will be durable or optional, as they are in the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.  All of this will depend on how land use plans are amended as part of the DRECP.  Land use plans tell land managers and stakeholders what level of use and destruction is allowed on various parcels of land, ranging from areas of critical environmental concern that are managed to preserve habitat and wildlife, to intensive use areas (known as Class I), where heavy levels of disturbance are allowed.

Industry Wants to Cut in Line
Generally speaking, the industry is not happy with the alternatives that the DRECP has put forward, which seek to confine energy development to areas with the fewest conflicts with biological and recreation resources.   A representative from the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) even said at the last stakeholders meeting that they may prefer the "No Action" alternative, since the status quo gives them more freedom to disregard conservation goals.  As I will explore in a future post, the industry's indignant response to the alternatives put forward by the DRECP is basically an expression of their naivete -- a child walking into a room and assuming they can twist knobs on the oven, play with electrical outlets, and throw toys at windows and television screens.  It is taking a while for the renewable energy industry to realize that there have been many stakeholders in line for desert resources much longer than them.

During DRECP stakeholder meetings, the energy industry and California energy officials made it clear that they prefer an alternative that gives the industry as much access to desert habitats as possible. The reason? They cited the need for market competition to keep electricity prices low, which requires more project applications that compete with each other for land and power purchase agreements from the utility companies. This position is another clear indication of how utility-scale energy development is unsustainable given current demands on natural resources.  Separately, utilities are indicating that tapping desert renewable energy resources will require expensive new transmission lines across the Antelope Valley, Victor Valley, Lucerne Valley, and in the Joshua Tree area. The industry and energy representatives are implying that a "viable" utility-scale energy market requires us to sacrifice conservation and biodiversity, even though the DRECP's objective is to find a balance that protects the desert, not Wall Street's pocketbook.

Conservationists Face Potential For Ecological Disaster
Depending on which alternative DRECP selects, some highly valued desert habitat could be put on the chopping block as a "development focus area" for the renewable energy industry.  In some of the alternatives, important golden eagle and California condor habitat is identified as available to industry. In other areas, development focus areas might fall on a critical wildlife corridor, or habitat for a rare plant or animal.  Even a small solar or wind project in the wrong place can have serious consequences.  What desert conservationists want is to make sure that there is adequate evaluation of the development focus areas.  Additionally, conservationists wonder whether or not the DRECP process exaggerates the amount of land necessary for the utility-scale solar industry when we still have more rooftops and already-disturbed areas in our cities for photovoltaic solar installations.

The DRECP assumption is that anywhere from 16,000 megwatts (MW) to 21,500 MW will need to be generated in California's desert region by 2040 to meet clean energy demand.  Conservation groups argue that energy efficiency programs and distributed generation (e.g. rooftop solar) across the State could reduce these numbers.  Another point to consider would be that if utility customers will have to subsidize major clean energy projects in the desert, it would seem to be more efficient and ecologically sound for electricity customers to keep the value in their communities by encouraging rooftop solar.  Why should our electricity rates go up so that LADWP or Southern California Edison can fork over large amounts of money to companies destroying our desert when we could use that money to invest in our own homes and businesses?

The map below shows clean energy projects already under construction or approved throughout southern California. Notice the widespread use of local photovoltaic (PV) solar installations in our cities (marked by yellow diamonds).

Local vs Utility-Scale Energy

The DRECP agencies undoubtedly will continue to feel the tug and pull of competing interests as they draft the environmental impact statement, and the potential for political influence from Washington on what should be a science-based approach is an added concern.  The information gaps and general outlines of the range of alternatives have already sent stakeholders scrambling to prepare their last comments before the agencies start the EIS.  They are right to be worried -- the DRECP could make some significant decisions for a very wide area, much like the Solar Programmatic EIS that has just been finalized.

The maps below show each of the five alternatives: including the development focus areas (generally the red areas). lands of ecological importance (blue), proposed "conservation areas" (yellow outlines) and special recreation areas (orange).  Military training and testing layers are not included in the map, other than the outlines of the existing military bases.  You can zoom in on each map using the controls at the bottom of each embedded document:

Alternative 1

Alternative 2

Alternative 3

Alternative 4

Alternative 5

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating post which outlines the choices and the possible consequences of their choices to the policy makers. This article should be bookmarked and read through several times to get all the nuances.

    My main concern, and like you I have sat through one of the DRECP hearings, is that the public will ignore, to their peril,the sausage making process, as they have all along, and the renewables crowd will drive an earth mover through the tiniest of loopholes.

    My position is, bottom line, I do not trust either mainstream enviros, or the government agencies involved, to do the right thing. I am not referring here to what's right to save the Mojave, but for these folks to act as honest brokers in a process rife with documented abuse of the environmental and other laws, and with abuse of honest citizens trying to have their say in this process- does anyone remember the "so called" comment hearing held out at Primm?

    So far, it has been a sham, plain and simple.

    I semi trust the scientists putting this report together, but the whole corrupt process it is about to go through after the details are hammered out, is my concern.

    It just seems that all along from the very beginning, that the powers that be decided that the deserts were to be sacrificed and the rest of us better learn to live with it. Some of us protested loudly and longly in our own way, but the bottom line so far as been just that, the financial bottom line to Wall Street, as it is with everything else in this world nowadays.

    What is good for Wall Street's bottom line is good for the rest of us, and after all, don't forget our Governor Brown's vow to crush resistance to these desert renewable energy projects.

    I take him at his word, considering all the power of Wall Street and the federal governmental agencies supporting these projects
    behind him, I would be a fool to not do so.

    So I guess I will take a wait and see approach for now, unless someone comes up with a better plan, as I don't foresee hundreds of thousands of people marching on Sacramento or Washington demanding the saving of the deserts, that's for sure.

    Thank you for this excellent article and for the soapbox.