Thursday, February 28, 2013

Amargosa Toad

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting a rare desert amphibian this month, thanks to the folks at Basin and Range Watch.  The Amargosa toad lives along a roughly ten mile stretch of the Amargosa River and associated springs in the Nevada desert.  The toad's habitat is threatened by human development and pumping of water resources, but luckily some local residents and the Nature Conservancy are working to preserve some of its habitat along the river.

An Amargosa toad (Bufi nelsoni) sits relatively camouflaged along a rare source of water in the desert. The BLM in 2006 considered auctioning off thousands of acres of public lands along the Amargosa River, which would have threatened its habitat with construction activity and more water pumping.
Although this toad only inhabits a small stretch, the Amargosa River actually stretches about 185 miles from Nevada into the Mojave Desert, just east of Death Valley National Park, and supports an array of wildlife, including migratory birds. 

BrightSource Energy's proposed Hidden Hills Solar project may be a potential threat to the Amargosa River and its tributaries.  Although the California Energy Commission (CEC) staff acknowledges that the Hidden Hills project impacts will be most severe for the Pahrump Valley groundwater basin--not the Amargosa River -- the CEC and the Amargosa River Conservancy have noted that there are information gaps and strict monitoring would be needed to make sure that the solar project's water guzzling does not impact the Amargosa River.  What is more likely is that the BrightSource Energy project will wipe out natural desert springs that serve wildlife located closer to the project site, including the Stump Springs, an area of critical environmental concern just miles away.

Mugging for the camera, and not comfortable with its lack of cover.  This Amargosa toad quickly absconded to a nearby stream after this photo was taken.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Study: Lakes Mead and Powell to Dry Up

A US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station study predicts that water levels at Lakes Mead and Powell -- reservoirs created to help feed the west's unsustainable demand for water -- are likely to drop to zero in approximately 60 years, in part due to climate change and increased drought in the Colorado River watershed.  The west has already faced alarming water shortages due to rapidly expanding cities and agriculture drawing from reservoirs and groundwater, but the changing precipitation patterns are likely to aggravate this shortage.

Las Vegas has aggressively sought to secure its future supply of water, investing in a new drain pipeline to connect to Lake Mead.  Dropping water levels at Lake Mead threaten to sink below the level of the current pipeline siphoning water to the metropolis, and Las Vegas has implemented drastic water rate increases to pay for the new pipeline. 

Further down the road, Las Vegas plans a multi-billion dollar pipeline to the northern reaches of Nevada to tap into other groundwater basins.  The move could decimate natural springs and aquifers up north for the benefit of the city's golf courses, pools, and casinos.  The pipeline is expected to eventually carry 84,000 acre-feet of water to the city, each year -- that is over 27.3 billion (with a B) gallons of water, each year.  It's not clear how Las Vegas will pay for this new pipeline.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Coal Loses Control

The "clean" coal car takes a beating in a fossil fuel-powered sport.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sierra Industries

Imagine if John Muir was in love with industry as the present day Sierra Club leadership.  If that were the case, I don't think we'd have a Sierra Club.  Mr. Muir would have been swept away with industry and the concrete canyons of the city.  Chris Clarke helps us imagine what John Muir would have thought of a once wild valley now filled with turbines and solar panels.  If we don't get renewable energy on a more sustainable path, we wont be able to share as many wild places with the next generations.  Check out Chris' full article here.

A sample from Chris' piece:
Even when the grand anthem had swelled to its highest pitch, I could distinctly hear the varying tones of individual turbines — GE, and Vesta, and Iberdrola, and Siemens — and even the infinitely gentle rustle of the withered red bromegrass at my feet. Each was expressing itself in its own way — singing its own song, and making its own peculiar gestures — manifesting a richness of variety to be found in no other factory I have yet seen. The California wind facilities are made up of a greater number of distinct makes and models than any other in the world.

Sierra Club Publication Promotes Industry Over Wildlife

After flipping through the pages of the Sierra Club's latest issue of Sierra magazine, I am left with a deep disappointment as the organization -- of which I am a member -- continues to sound more like an industry lobby group than a conservation organization.   Much of the March/April issue is dedicated to exulting the wind industry, with less than a page of material that provides a weak description of the industry's impact on wildlife and wildlands, describing the death of birds and bats by wind turbines as "trivial," and placing a lot of optimistic emphasis on the industry's ability to self-regulate.  As another blogger put it, "Not From The Onion: Sierra Magazine’s All-Wind Issue."

The Sierra Club's communication team cannot seem to promote renewable energy while adhering to a conservation ethic, despite ample opportunities to do so, suggesting the wind industry carries substantial influence over the organization and that the battle to eliminate harmful fossil fuel production has resulted in the sacrifice of our group's dedication to the wild places the organization was founded to protect.

Wind turbines kill at least 440,000 birds each year, a figure that is expected to increase significantly as the wind industry expands. This number was not mentioned in the Sierra magazine article, perhaps because the Sierra Club's definition of "trivial" probably does not seem to accurately describe hundreds of thousands of dead animals. The number of bat deaths by wind turbines probably also numbers in the tens of thousands per year, according to the US Geological Survey. I'm sorry if these numbers are "trivial" to the Sierra Club editorial staff, but some of our activists have fought for a lifetime to protect far fewer living beings. 

Industry: Friend or Foe?
The Sierra article portrays the wind industry as cooperative and willing to self-regulate in order to protect wildlife, including examples of the industry paying "mitigation" fees and promising to turn off turbines if select species of birds are spotted in the area. This is a naive portrayal of the situation on the ground, ignores substantial information to the contrary, and sounds more like industry talking points than the concerned voice of a conservation group.

"Cutting-edge" bird radar: The article mentions Terra-Gen's plans to deploy an avian radar in the Tehachapi Mountains in the western Mojave Desert to shut off the turbines when an endangered California condor approaches.  The radar technology is fairly experimental, and a radar installed to protect large birds near the Ocotillo Wind project apparently failed to detect or turn off when a large turkey vulture flew through the project. The Terra-Gen project is mostly dependent on monitoring of California condor radio collars to know when a condor is in the area. Unfortunately, only half of the condor population is collared. Furthermore, the article does not seem to address another issue -- if we hope the condors will inhabit their former range in the Tehachapi Mountains, is Terra-Gen prepared to shut down their wind turbines indefinitely if a condor pair nests nearby?

Altamont is an "outlier":
The Sierra article seems to begrudgingly mention the deaths of dozens of golden eagles at the Altamont Pass wind project in northern California, but describes this problem as an "outlier".  The article does not mention the Sierra Madre-Chokecherry wind project that is expected to kill up to 64 golden eagles each year when it is built.  Or what about the eight golden eagles killed by the Pine Tree wind project in the Tehachapi Mountains?  Or the golden eagle killed by the North Sky River wind project just weeks after the project began operations?  These projects are newer than Altamont, and use similar turbine designs that the Sierra magazine article claims will reduce eagle mortality.

Wind industry uses voluntary guidelines: The Sierra magazine article also mentions the Sierra Club's belated support for mandatory siting guidelines (the Sierra Club only announced support for mandatory guidelines after participating in a Federal process that approved voluntary guidelines). What the article does not mention is that the wind industry actively lobbied against mandatory wildlife protections, and shows disregard for the voluntary guidelines that the article implies are followed by industry.   The wind industry generally does not listen to advice from Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officials, nor from environmental groups when they are selecting locations for wind projects.
  • According to the American Bird Conservancy petition to the Department of Interiorn last year demanding mandatory guidelines, one wind energy company began construction of their facility despite FWS concerns that the project would pose a serious threat to Bald Eagles.  
  • Representatives from British Petroleum are proceeding with plans to build a wind facility in Nebraska that would pose a major risk to the endangered whooping crane, despite repeated objections from the FWS.
  • Another wind developer has ignored requests by FWS for information that could help determine risks to golden eagles in western Nevada.
The Sierra Club should know that voluntary guidelines are a failure -- they tried to ask NextEra not to build in condor habitat and the company balked. If the voluntary guidelines are working, why are new projects being considered or built in prime raptor territory? In addition to the Sierra Madre-Chokecherry project mentioned above, the Granite Wind project would be built near golden eagles nests in the Mojave Desert.

Suggestive of the disregard industry has for wildlife, the owners of the Pine Tree wind project even asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service for "proof" that the eight golden eagles killed at the site were killed by turbines and not some other mysterious cause.  The company knows that killing eagles could be a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Legalize Eagle Kills?
And now the Department of Interior is considering whether to issue the wind industry permits to kill eagles for 30 years, instead of the standard 5-year permits.  Most wind projects do not have any eagle permits at all, but FWS has not been able to take action against wind projects that kill eagles because of the lack of political will in Washington to hold the wind industry accountable.   The 30-year permits would be yet another concession to the industry that reduces public participation in the process and favors industry over the protection of wildlife, for reasons laid out in KCET's ReWire.   What is the Sierra Club's position on eagle kill permits? Why was this not mentioned in Sierra magazine?

If the Sierra Club is going to maintain its credibility as a conservation organization, it should strongly consider a more vocal position on wind energy siting and wildlife protection. Part of this shift will require a more nuanced and educational approach in its communications with membership, instead of the material found in the most recent issue.  After years of telling our members that the wind industry is the green David versus Goliath, we will need to break the news that the wind industry shares at least two common interests with Goliath--profit and destruction of land--and that we need to be more vigilant. That should not be hard for our membership to understand. The wind industry is growing quickly and replacing fossil fuels -- if we want future generations to appreciate wind energy, we should fight today to make sure the industry follows the most sustainable path. For the time being, we are behaving as a mouthpiece for the industry, and not for wildlife.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Keystone And The Long Fight

I would recommend reading a recent piece by David Roberts on Grist.  Mr. Roberts takes on critics who say that the environmental movement's focus on the Keystone XL pipeline is "unreasonable".  Although I have worried that the White House may consider Keystone as an easy escape from taking other bold positions to cut fossil fuels and protecting wildlands -- reject Keystone but then compromise on other fossil fuel policies -- I think Mr. Roberts lays out an excellent case for why we have to stake out bold positions, even if it means earning an "unreasonable" label. 

Our wildlands face a serious threat from climate change and continued human destruction.  This calls for "rapid, systemic change," as Mr. Roberts highlights.  This has its own special relevance in the desert -- beyond the need to cut fossil fuels and stem climate change impacts, we also need to demand more from the renewable energy industry.  We need to keep large-scale projects away from pristine desert habitat, and push for the aggressive deployment of distributed solar generation in our cities or on already-disturbed lands.  The most sustainable path probably is not the easiest path, but it will have the least regrets (unless you are a utility company executive!).

Rooftop solar panels adorn a building at the visitor center for the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

NextEra Kills Golden Eagles as American Bird Conservancy Asks Interior to Reconsider Plan

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) this week asked the Department of Interior to reconsider its plan to allow wind energy companies to kill bald and golden eagles for a period of 30 years, instead of the standard five years.  ABC requested that Department of Interior delay its decision on the plan until President Obama's nominee for Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, has time to review the proposal.

ABC's request is urgent because wind energy projects already in operation have already had a significant toll on raptor and bat populations, and the wind industry continues to expand rapidly.  In the past month, NextEra Energy's North Sky River wind project killed its first golden eagle within weeks of beginning operation on the western edge of the Mojave Desert.  Both the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club lodged a legal challenge against the North Sky River project, and NextEra ignored their concerns. Although the Sierra Club is a party to the protest, its national level communications have shown disregard for wind industry impacts on wildlife. The North Sky River facility will industrialize 13,000 acres of prime eagle foraging habitat.

The North Sky River facility was permitted by the Federal government despite its location near the notorious Pine Tree wind project, which feeds Los Angeles with electricity and has killed several golden eagles.  The owner of the Pine Tree project asked US Fish and Wildlife for proof that the golden eagles found dead beneath its turbines were killed by the turbines and not some other cause- a greedy attempt to protect profits instead of protecting wildlife.

Neither North Sky River, nor the Pine Tree wind projects have "permits" to kill eagles. Interior's plan to extend 30-year permits would facilitate a more rapid expansion of the wind industry into areas with high ecological value by weakening one of the potential legal obstacles- the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.  Congress passed this law to protect iconic species that play a critical role in ecosystems across the United States.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has not yet prosecuted an offending wind project for killing eagles or other endangered bird and bat species. Wind turbines in the Altamont Pass have killed 67 golden eagles, among other species, each year for three decades. Wind companies have begun to replace older and smaller turbines with much larger machines- over 420 feet tall claiming that bigger turbines can reduce eagle mortality, although a study indicates larger turbines kill more bats.

The American Bird Conservancy's letter this week also raised concerns that invitation-only meetings were held by the US Fish and Wildlife Service last year with wind companies and select environmental groups to discuss the future of permits to kill eagles. The Obama administration promised more transparency in government actions, but its decision-making on wind energy have left much to be desired.

Dozens more proposed wind energy projects will scar America's southwest wildlands. Interior's plans to essentially look the other way as the industry slaughters more wildlife is shortsighted and promises centuries of future regret.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

President Promises More Destruction for Wildlands

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama vowed to speed up permitting for energy projects -- including oil and gas -- on public wildlands, and a potentially ominous call to invest in modernizing "pipelines".  The President is sticking to his "all of the above" energy approach that has had significant impacts on our desert landscapes, including inappropriately sited solar and wind projects that have already industrialized dozens of square miles of public lands.  

It is hard to appreciate the President's proposal for energy and fuel efficiency investments when he remains committed to sacrificing our wildlands to private industry and increasing natural gas and oil production.  Our wildlands are already burdened by climate change. Converting more of those lands to industrial use -- whether for solar energy, natural gas, or coal -- is simply more of the status quo we have faced over the last century.

[click on image to expand] The Obama administration approved BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project as part of its "fast track" energy permitting process, and the company has already destroyed nearly 5.6 square miles of what was once ecologically intact desert habitat.  Coupled with continued oil and gas industry permits in Wyoming, the Arctic, and the Gulf of Mexico, the White House has been a poor steward of our public lands and our climate.

The President's energy policy is not a plan for progress, but one of continued destruction.   We need an energy policy that cuts fossil fuels, and encourages renewable energy generation in our cities and on already-disturbed lands.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Next Four Years

The President today nominated REI chief and former Mobil Oil executive Sally Jewell to be the next Secretary of Interior.  I do not envy Jewell because the President and his outgoing Secretary of Interior -- Ken Salazar -- have made it imperative that the next four years look starkly different than the last four years.  After the first four years, President Obama has used administrative powers to protect 186,077 acres of public lands, according to the New York Times, which means he'll have serious catching up to do if he wants to reach George W. Bush's 700,000 acres, although that is a very low bar to set.

Rather than preserve our natural resources, Obama and Salazar during the first four years opened up millions of acres to the energy industry -- including oil, gas, solar and wind projects -- that have fragmented and destroyed our deserts, grasslands and forests (not to mention the offshore drilling they have approved).   The President's "all of the above" energy strategy gives something to just about every industry, but mostly excludes conservation.  In Nevada alone there are plans to industrialize over 400 square miles of public lands for wind and solar facilities,  despite ample rooftops and parking lots for more efficient local solar generation.  Our public lands carry the burden of the President's acquiescence to fossil fuels, and the burden of his vision of change, which still involves handing over wildlands to energy companies.

The Google Earth image above shows the extent of destruction planned or taking place in the Ivanpah Valley as part of the Obama administration's support for utility-scale solar in the desert. Instead of creating incentives for more distributed generation, the administration has fast-tracked nearly 20 square miles of industrial development on pristine habitat in the valley, on top of dozens of square miles of approved projects throughout California, Nevada and Arizona.
Hopefully the President and his new (pending confirmation in the Senate) Secretary of Interior will recognize that we are on the wrong path.  We need true change and forward thinking to support a significant shift in our energy policy -- invest in energy efficiency, energy conservation, and local clean energy -- and give our wildlands a break. 

Bulldozers clearing Joshua Tree woodland in the western Mojave Desert for the Alta Wind energy center, converting open desert into an industrial zone.  Photo by Friends of Mojave.

Solar panels adorn a small municipal building in Ohio.  As rooftop solar generation adds up, it can have a significant impact on energy demand and pricing.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Nevada Wildlife Official Ousted

Nevada is probably looking for a new director for its Department of Wildlife, but if you want to protect wildlife habitat, don't bother applying.  The New York Times has a good write-up worth reading on the ouster of the Director of Nevada's Department of Wildlife, who was apparently focused on preserving habitat for the greater sage grouse in the Great Basin desert.  Mr. Kenneth Mayer had previously been ousted after ranchers and hunters complained that he did not support predator control -- killing mountain lions and coyotes -- to boost deer populations. 

It is no surprise then that Nevada falls behind other states in conservation planning, despite facing significant levels of proposed development

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Bitter Cold

I got up early to watch the sun rise from a small patch of Joshua Tree woodland habitat in the western Mojave.  I parked the car along a two lane road and ventured into the dark desert, chasing a rapidly setting moon to the west as the faint light of dawn crept up on me from the east.

The moon setting over the Mojave.

I walked for a few minutes and my hands were already numb from the cold wind.  All of the creosote bushes that combed the wind in the darkness came into view as the sun's light silhouetted the San Gabriel mountains.  From this patch of desert I could momentarily convince myself that I had found solitude, even though I was standing on an island of habitat slowly being engulfed by new housing tracts and shopping centers.  Two lanes become four, and stop signs become traffic signals.  Joshua trees become car dealerships and rabbitbrush become fast food restaurants.

Humans have always used and respected the desert's power, but now these beautiful wildlands are merely an obstacle to the growth of the human empire.  Like the stubbornness of the Sequoia trees harvested by ambitious timber companies, or the wild runs of the Colorado River confronted with hydro power dams.  Our objective now is to tame, develop, and destroy.  For progress, improvement, and to power our human lives with electricity, dirty and clean.  We are indeed exceptional; endowed with emotion and love. But over the course of recent history, we have shared only a meager sum of that compassion for our fellow creatures.

Minutes after losing the moon, the sun patiently cast its glow from the east.

But at least for a moment, the bitter cold and the company of the Joshua Trees praising the day's first light brought me peace. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Citizens Fight Natural Gas Plant Outside San Diego

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) wants a new natural gas-fired power plant built east of San Diego, but local organizations --including Save the Mission Trails, San Diego Sierra Club and chapters -- are asking the utility to instead invest in local rooftop solar deployment and energy efficiency.  The utility company argues that the peaker plant is necessary to offset the intermittency of wind and solar, although distributed generation spread out across our urban areas and energy efficiency investments probably would offset any claimed need for more fossil fuel generation.

A rendering of what an industrial energy facility would look like near the Mission Trails, east of San Diego.  Photo from the Save the Mission Trails website.
SDG&E did not bother to show up to a California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) meeting where members of the public expressed their concerns, and CPUC again delayed a vote to either reject or accept SDG&E's plans to buy energy from the proposed natural gas plant.  Save the Mission Trails reported on their website that lobbyists and officials from Cogentrix -- the company that would build the power plant for SDG&E -- has been meeting with CPUC officials behind closed doors in an attempt to sway opinion in favor of the project.

Protesters express opposition to SDG&E plans to add more fossil fuel generation and destroy habitat near Mission Trails Regional Park.  Photo by @Kayla_EHC
You may recall that SDG&E previously attempted to impose a fee on owners of rooftop solar claiming that the panels can be a burden on other ratepayers, even though a study by Vote Solar found that distributed solar generation yields net benefits for all ratepayers.  The rooftop solar fee was rejected, but the utility would still rather protect its centralized energy model (and profits) from the expansion of rooftop solar.

Trivializing Loss of Life to Defend Industry

I am looking forward to the next issue of Sierra magazine because it will feature an article regarding the wind industry's impacts on birds and bats.  The author, Paul Rauber, wrote a good piece in the last issue on distributed generation, and some of the policy reforms necessary to expand deployment of community solar.  However, as I pointed out earlier this week, Mr. Rauber thought that a graphic and article published by Mother Jones comparing bird mortality by wind turbines to bird mortality by cats was a useful piece of information to share with the Sierra Club's thousands of followers in a separate piece published on the Club's website.  The Mother Jones article and graphic not only portray the loss of 440,000 birds a year as trivial, but also suggests that enforcement of bird conservation law on the wind industry is a tool of renewable energy "opponents."  The article boils down two complex and different problems into an unsophisticated and kitschy graphic that only serves to disarm voices expressing concern about the wind industry's impacts, including voices within the conservation community.

Mr. Rauber has yet to acknowledge that the intent of the graphic and accompanying article undermine the Sierra Club's objectives to ensure that the expanding renewable energy industry appreciates and protects wildlife.  Mr. Rauber suggested removing the Mother Jones link from the Sierra Club website would be "censorship," and told a concerned biologist on Friday that the best reason to say that cats kill more birds than wind turbines is "because it's true".  Yes, the data depicted in the graphic are accurate, but the graphic's defense of the wind industry's impact is not consistent with the Sierra Club's objectives. 

In a letter sent to Secretary of Interior in January 2012, the Sierra Club leadership had this to say about enforced wind energy guidelines:
"...the wildlife values embodied in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other statutes should be protected by the full weight of the enacted laws and strong enforcement thereof."
Aside from this letter, Sierra Club members and staff have been fighting to protect pristine ecosystems and endangered birds and bats from ill-sited utility-scale wind and solar energy projects.  These efforts are not a blanket opposition to all renewable energy, as the Mother Jones article implies, but to ensure that the successors to dirty fossil fuels establish a more sustainable business model.  It is not "censorship" to remove the Mother Jones link from the Sierra Club website, but an effort to avoid faulty logic and inconsistent messages when communicating with our membership. Our communications should support our conservation goals, not undermine them.

At a very basic level, though, the comparison of bird mortality presented in the Mother Jones graphic is offensive.  Even if you do not read the accompanying article lamenting attempts to enforce guidelines on the wind industry, the graphic portrays 440,000 bird deaths as an insignificant drop in the bucket, and manipulates the loss of living creatures with the misguided intent of defending an industry. The Sierra Club's founder had a profound appreciation for each and every living creature, and would not trivialize the loss of even the "smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge." Hopefully Sierra magazine will take this loss of life more seriously in its next issue, and highlight the disregard elements of the wind industry have shown for wildlife.