Friday, January 31, 2014

Keystone XL Clears Environmental Hurdle, but Outcome Far From Certain

The Department of State today issued the environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would deliver up to 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from Canada to Nebraska, linking to an existing pipeline that would then make the oil accessible to ports in the Gulf of Mexico.  An initial read of the EIS suggests State is laying the groundwork for the Obama administration to approve the pipeline because the document assesses that the pipeline would not have a significant impact on the climate.  Although we have seen this plenty of times before - an EIS downplays the impacts of a project and signals impending approval - the outcome is far from certain in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline.

An illustration from the EIS that looks like it belongs in a children's book shows the process for ripping up the miles of prairie and badlands to lay the Keystone XL pipeline.
The President claimed in his June 2013 climate speech that he would evaluate whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline based on its overall contribution to the climate crisis; he should instead ask whether the Federal government should facilitate a 5.4 billion dollar investment that makes it easier for companies to profit from an unsustainable and destructive fuel source.  Although the document's "wells to wheels" analysis of the pipeline's impact on greenhouse gas emissions does acknowledge that the pipeline could contribute to an overall increase in these emissions,  that analysis is in a footnote on page 4.14-36 of the EIS.  The EIS primarily lays out the case that the tar sands oil is likely to be extracted from the ground in Canada, distributed and burned via other means, such as rail and trucks, regardless of whether or not the pipeline is built.

What is encouraging is that the President has plainly accepted that the climate crisis is a threat.  What is troubling is that he continues to adhere to an "all of the above" energy policy that does not seem to differentiate among energy sources based on sustainability.  The Department of Interior has opened more public lands to natural gas and coal extraction, and even the administration's solar policy has permitted some of the most poorly sited and destructive renewable energy projects imaginable, such as BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar project.   If we truly believe that we face a climate crisis, and that our wildlands are under unprecedented threat, our policies should prioritize energy efficiency and sustainable renewable energy.  Our transportation investments should favor mass transit, pedestrian and bike friendly cities, and fuel efficient vehicles.  We should not be green lighting the construction of multi-billion dollar oil pipelines.

The President must consider whether his administration should approve further entrenchment in a paradigm that he has already admitted we must abandon, or to affirm his pledge to innovate and switch to a more sustainable path.  Whether or not Keystone XL is found to contribute to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, the irrefutable fact is that the pipeline is a step in the wrong direction. An investment of time, money and sweat in an industry that should be rendered obsolete by investments in a smarter path.

One Bird

Washington, D.C. was recently captivated by the arrival of a snowy owl downtown.  The raptors don't normally find their way this far south, but apparently much of the country has seen an influx of these beautiful birds.  The reason for the snowy owl invasion is not quite clear, but some ornithologists hypothesize that a successful breeding year has driven many of the birds further south to establish their own territory.  Regardless of how the bird got to the city, it was welcomed with coverage in the Washington Post under a "breaking" headline.  Social media buzz about the bird's location also brought onlookers to the city block where it rested before a night's hunt.  People took pictures from the sidewalk and from cars, and traveled from other parts of the metro area just to catch a glimpse.

Within five days of all the buzz, the snowy owl was hit by a bus, and taken to veterinarians for treatment.  The Washington Post covered the owl's fate, and reported that a police officer rushed the owl to the National Zoo for treatment.  This story, and many other stories of public concern for wildlife always provide me some hope that there remains a reservoir of genuine care for wildlife, even if that care is buried under layers of human materialism and consumption.   These stories also bring me back to question how public statements by the wind industry regarding bird kills actually gain traction within the community that is supposed to be the vanguard of wildlife preservation. 

The wind industry explains away a growing number of annual bird kills at wind projects - currently estimated at 500,000 per year - as trivial compared to other sources of bird mortality, such as vehicle strikes, and domestic cats.   The industry is correct - more birds are killed every year by other human causes.  But the comparison only serves to minimize a growing threat to birds and their habitat, and masks the fact that wind turbines can threaten different species and places than other human causes.  Domestic cats may kill more birds than turbines, but cats don't kill golden eagles in the western Mojave Desert, or red-tailed hawks in Nevada.   If this were the assault rifle and high capacity magazine debate, the wind industry's logic would be translated as "hammers kill more humans than assault rifles every year, so we shouldn't regulate assault rifles." (yes, that logic was actually applied by parties interested in averting high capacity magazine regulation)

There is a reason we want to protect wildlands - we have already transformed our cities into a human-dominated ecosystem where only certain species can thrive, and the snowy owl's injury by a bus is illustrative.  We may adore wildlife, but we have made cities largely incompatible with this love.  Raptors like the snowy owls don't look both ways before flying across the street, accustomed to narrowly focusing on the prey they are pursuing.  We poison the rats and mice that raptors eat, sending toxins into the food chain that result in the deaths of key predators that serve as a more natural, and safer version of rodent control.  We count on open, pristine lands to provide the habitat and resilience wildlife need to survive outside of out own severely altered abodes.

What is scary about the industry's dismissive attitude toward 500,000 annual bird deaths is that it actually works among some environmentalists, who repeat the tag line to reassure themselves and others that it is okay to continue writing the industry a blank check to kill wildlife.  It is probably easier to care about wildlife when it is right there in front of us than when it is a statistic in an environmental impact statement or a press release.  Without that instant gratification of seeing a snowy owl right in front of us, maybe it's difficult to care about its well-being and habitat far away.  Without it right in front of us, we seem to revert to our fascination with the human ability to transform the world and our mantra of consumption for the sake of growth.  Wildlife just seems to get in the way of that never-ending march.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

State of the Union 2014

In his State of the Union address, the President applauded the success of rooftop solar - noting that every four minutes another home or business goes solar.  He also encouraged Congress to cut subsidies for fossil fuels.  Importantly, he also vowed to protect pristine federal lands for future generations.

If the United States can execute on this vision, we can deliver a promising future that slashes fossil fuel emissions, generates clean energy in a responsible fashion, and preserves our country's natural treasures and open spaces.

However, the Obama administration's track record on conservation and responsible energy development is poor.  The President's all of the above energy strategy has scarred public lands with more natural gas wells and fracking,  allowed drilling in the Arctic, and permitted massive solar projects on some of the most important wildlife corridors in the Mojave Desert.  It is time to abandon this reckless approach and focus on a sustainable future that protects our public lands.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

FOIA Documents Shed Light on Closed-Door Meetings on Eagle Deaths

Documents received by the American Bird Conservancy in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request shed light on numerous closed-door meetings from October 2012 through at least March 2013 that the Department of Interior held with a coalition of wind industry and conservation group representatives - known as the "Group of 16" - to continue the "dialogue" on two policy efforts that impact bald and golden eagles: 1) Interior's plans to completely revise the eagle take permit rule, and 2) a revision to the eagle take rule specifically allowing companies to kill bald and golden eagles for up to 30 years.  Interior finalized the 30-year eagle take permits in December 2013, but has not yet finalized the more comprehensive revisions to the eagle take rule.  The American Bird Conservancy has expressed concern that the invitation-only meetings may have violated rules and laws designed to maintain transparency and public participation in how the Federal government makes decisions.

The closed-door meetings were held in response to a request from the "Group of 16", and occurred after the public comment period for both rule revision processes had closed in July 2012.   If Interior wanted to seek additional input, it could have pursued a number of mechanisms that would have been consistent with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which governs "any committee, board, commission, council, conference, panel, task force, or other similar group" that provides advice or recommendations.  For example, Interior could have initiated a "negotiated rulemaking" process that would have allowed it to seek input from the "Group of 16" in a way that would have been more transparent to the public.  Instead, Interior held closed-door, collaborative meetings with the wind industry and select conservation groups to discuss potential modifications of the eagle take rule; stakeholders such as other conservation groups, tribes, and other industries were excluded from the discussions by Interior leadership despite concerns raised by others within and outside Interior.

According to the FOIA documents, Interior provided the Group of 16 with a detailed look at the Obama administration's plans to review and revise the broader eagle take rule - a level of detail that the public and other stakeholders have not been provided.  Interior is aiming to finalize the eagle take rule revision in 2015, which is likely to be a significant overhaul of the process that could favor expanded wind development on wildlands.

Wind Industry Exploits Direct Access and Influence

The FOIA documents also underscore close ties between the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and top officials at Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service, with conservation groups apparently playing second fiddle.  Interior's final decision on the 30-year permits in December 2013 make it abundantly clear that there were winners and losers among the Group of 16 - the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) praised the 30-year eagle take permits, and environmental groups blasted the permit extension as a "blank check" for the wind industry to kill bald and golden eagles without adequate scientific study of the impacts.  The split opinions among the Group of 16 highlight the environmental community's attempts to compromise with industry failed, and call into question to what extent AWEA and Interior will accept the conservation community's concerns as the Obama administration revises the overall eagle take rule.

The FOIA documents show that the wind industry was explicitly asking Interior to reduce regulatory risk for  proposed or existing wind projects deemed to have moderate or high impacts on eagles, even though FWS lacked scientifically sound conservation practices to adequately mitigate the risk to eagles.  The wind industry's request was discussed in an October 2012 meeting hosted by the American Wind Wildlife Institute - an organization largely funded by the wind industry - and further detailed in later correspondence to Interior.  Steve Black, counselor to the Secretary of Interior, received an e-mail on January 30, 2013 from John Anderson at the American Wind Energy Association with an attached memo proposing changes to the eagle policies for "sites where the risk for eagle take is high, and that such take will occur on an on-going basis, and for those facilities that are currently taking eagles, the parties will work with the Service to develop a short-term national, programmatic research program."  AWEA was asking Interior to find a way to permit risky wind projects, and explain away eagle deaths as part of research into the impacts of wind projects on wildlife.

In an earlier e-mail to Interior leadership contained in the FOIA documents, AWEA's Anderson expresses knowledge that Interior planned to submit the revised Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance - a document that governs how Fish and Wildlife Service implements the broader eagle take rule - to the Office of Management and Budget for executive review, and says "let me know if you need me to make any calls" - an apparent reference to his ability influence the outcome.   Not surprisingly, the 30-year eagle take permit revision, and the updated Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance  published by Interior allows the wind industry to kill bald and golden eagles under the auspices of "experimental advanced conservation practices" (ACPs). According to the final rule, " [t]his approach will provide the needed scientific information for the future establishment of formal ACPs, while enabling wind energy facilities to move forward in the interim."

In the FOIA documents, AWEA also specifically tells Interior not to ask specific wind companies to apply for eagle take permits, suggesting doing so might make it more difficult for projects to obtain financing.   It is not clear whether or not Interior currently requests that specific wind projects apply for take permits, or simply encourages the practice more broadly.  The FOIA documents also reveal that some of the Group of 16 were considering asking Interior to allow wind projects to move forward in the "interim" - as the eagle take permit rule is being revised - with eagle conservation plans "in lieu of permits."  Doing so would seem to be a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.  If Interior is not demanding wind projects apply for permits, it would seem that Interior is essentially complying with the industry's request.

Interior Fails to Provide Transparency

Interior continues to conceal the extent of the meetings and even the substance discussed - much of the documents released to the American Bird Conservancy remain redacted and blacked out, including documents clearly pertaining to the meetings held with the Group of 16.  It is very likely that the meetings continued beyond March, 2013 because the documents released to the American Bird Conservancy only cover activities up until the initial FOIA request.

Interior's behavior is unacceptable and inconsistent with the Obama administration's pledge to improve transparency across government.  Taking a select few stakeholders into closed-door meetings to discuss the way forward on revising not only the 30-year take permits, but the broader eagle take rule is especially shocking considering how many strong feelings Americans have about allowing any industry to kill eagles.  The meetings were not announced to the public, and specifically excluded tribes, industries, smaller conservation groups, and members of the general public that also care about how well Interior stewards our natural treasures.

Timeline of key events:
  • April 13, 2012: Fish and Wildlife Service publishes the draft proposed rule allowing the wind industry to kill eagles over 30-year periods,  and seeks public comment.  The rule is intended to satisfy the wind industry which argued that financiers were less likely to fund projects built in eagle habitat with the standard 5-year permits out of fear that the projects could be shut down before banks and companies received a return on their investment.
  • July 12, 2012:  The public comment period for the overall eagle take permit revision, as well as the draft rule extending eagle take permits to 30-years closes. Members of the public, industry representatives, tribes, and conservation groups submit nearly 160 comments regarding the 30-year permit extension, many opposing the rule on grounds that it could harm eagle populations over the long-term, and highlighting the lack of scientific research on the status and trends in eagle populations.   Many more submitted comments opposing the 30-year take permits, but accidentally submit them under a separate docket for the overall eagle take rule revision.
  • August 22, 2012:  A select group of wind industry and conservation groups (the "Group of 16") submit a letter to then Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar asking Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service to "supplement the current notice-and-comment proceedings through continued and collaborative interaction with key stakeholders," through formal or informal processes, the latter having less public participation or transparency.
  • October 2012:  Steve Black, counselor to the Secretary of Interior, begins to respond to the industry and conservation group letter by reaching out to other select stakeholders and determining how to meet the group's request for collaboration on the rule.  He ignores American Bird Conservancy’s request to be included and the requests of tribes who have asked for government-to-government consultation.
  • October 5, 2012:  Steve Black sends an e-mail to California Energy Commissioner commissioner Karen Douglas and senior advisor to Governor Brown Michael Pickering highlighting plans for continued engagement and asking for an offline discussion on the way forward.  This is interesting because California is home to wind facilities that have had the highest publicly acknowledged kill rates of golden eagles.
  • October 23, 2012:  The Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service sends a letter in response to the August 22 letter, inviting stakeholders to a "one-to-two day meeting" to "work with Service staff to develop a collaborative process to ensure the long-term sustainability of eagle populations and responsible renewable energy development."
  • October 24, 2012:  Fish and Wildlife Service leadership meets with wind industry and conservation group stakeholders to discuss how to proceed on the eagle permit process.  Fish and Wildlife Service's internal minutes  from the meeting indicate that Interior intends to finalize probably the 30-year eagle rule revision in December 2012, and that future meetings with stakeholders "may not be collaborative," despite the Director's October 23 letter specifically inviting stakeholders to a collaborative process.  The 30-year eagle rule revision is ultimately not published until December 2013 - a year later. 
  • November 13, 2013: Fish and Wildlife Service officials are told that the Group of 16 is considering asking Interior to allow wind projects to move forward with "Eagle Conservation Plans in lieu of permits,"  essentially a violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
  • November 15, 2012:  Lower level Fish and Wildlife Service officials discuss who to invite to the next "Group of 16" meeting, noting correctly that the process should be transparent and accessible to all stakeholders, but later acknowledge guidance from Fish and Wildlife Service leadership to limit the meeting to the select group of stakeholders.
  • November 29, 2012:  David Cottingham, Senior Advisor to the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, attends a collaborative meeting hosted by the wind industry with many of the same stakeholders.  In minutes drafted by the wind industry-funded American Wind Wildlife Institute, Cottingham reportedly stated that the stakeholders need to find a way to identify ways to "enable wind energy projects to get permitted" even as Interior continues to revise the overall eagle take rule, a theme that the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) later underscores as a priority in a letter to Interior.  At the November 29 meeting,  the wind industry expressed interest in allowing wind projects to kill eagles under "research permits."
  • November 30, 2012: Cottingham reports to the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service that he checked with AWEA and confirmed the industry association is "willing to go along with" a delay in finalizing the 30-year take permit in the "spirit of collaboration with the environmental community."  He reiterated to the Director that the wind industry wants the 30-year permits with "intermediate check-ins," or just periodic oversight of the industry's impacts on wildlife.
  • January 2013: According to e-mails back and forth within Department of Interior and with stakeholders, Interior works to nail down another meeting with the select wind industry and conservation group stakeholders. 
  • January 30, 2013:  Over 6 months after the public comment period ended, John Anderson of the AWEA sends an e-mail directly to Steve Black of the Department of Interior, with a memo outlining the changes AWEA would like to make to the eagle take permitting process. In an attached document, AWEA proposes that as the overall eagle take rule is being revised the Fish and Wildlife Service should "commit to not requesting that companies pursue eagle take permits" as long as wind projects develop eagle conservation plans. 
  • February 4, 2013: Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes sends an e-mail to conservation groups and the wind industry inviting them to a February 11 meeting to "discuss how we can work productively together" on the revision of the eagle take rule.
  •  February 6, 2013: The Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service sends an e-mail with an attachment outlining the "process of consultation" and workshop process he would like to have with the "Group of 16," referring to the select group of industry and conservation group stakeholders.  The attachment and parts of the Director's email are redacted in the FOIA documents, covering up the scope and intent of the meetings Fish and Wildlife hosted.
  • February 10, 2013:  Cottingham sends an email to the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service with a summary of the Group of 16's proposal for revising the eagle take permit process.  Much of the summary is redacted in the FOIA response, but appears to outline a process for how to handle existing wind projects causing harm to eagles, and proposed projects.
  • February 11, 2013:  Interior hosts the meeting to discuss the eagle rule with a limited group of stakeholders identified by Interior, nearly seven months after the public comment period closed.  The meeting is not announced to the public, and minutes from the meeting are not made public.   Transparency takes yet another hit when Interior goes so far as to redact some statements made by Interior to these stakeholders from the documents sent to the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) in response to the FOIA request.
  • February/March 2013:  After the February 11 meeting, the Group of 16 requests a follow-up meeting.  Separately, Fish and Wildlife Service officials who coordinate policy on eagles and raptors were working "feverishly" to respond to unspecified guidance from Interior leadership on how to respond to the stakeholders' concerns.
  • March 27, 2013: Interior holds a second meeting with the same stakeholders on the eagle rule, over 8 months after the comment period closed.
  • April 2013: The Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance - a document of interest to AWEA representative John Anderson according to the FOIA documents - is finalized and published by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • December 2013:  Fish and Wildlife Service publishes the final rule extending eagle take permits from five to 30 years, including a provision allowing for "experimental advanced conservation practices."

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Get Out and Explore, Learn

If you live in the southwest or plan travel there early this year, here are a few opportunities to engage, explore, and learn about the desert!

Desert Survivors

If you're looking for opportunities to camp and hike some of the most remote parts of our deserts, check out the Desert Survivors - they organize frequent hikes and camping trips.  You'll have to join the group (a nominal fee, and file a release).  They have seven trips planned from now until April -later this month they will be exploring Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and then the Turtle Mountains in February.   Membership is worth it - you'll get their regular newsletter, and contribute to the group's desert conservation service and advocacy.

Desert Institute

The Desert Institute sponsored by the Joshua Tree National Park Associations has a robust schedule of field trips and lectures geared toward ecology, culture, and history of the desert.  Although many of the events are in the vicinity of the park, some of them are further afield.  From March 21 to 24, the Desert Institute is sponsoring a trip to the Tickaboo Valley north of Las Vegas for field research on the population ecology of Joshua trees.  You'll get to participate in a citizen science project, and spend some quality time in a beautiful corner of the desert.

Mojave National Preserve Conservancy

The Mojave National Preserve Conservancy sponsors a number of service and educational events in the desert.  They have cleaned up and restored corners of the expansive Preserve, and hosted star parties for those that enjoy gazing at the beautiful night sky above the desert.

Wildlife Refuges

The desert is home to a number of great wildlife refuges, and each of them usually sponsors outings.  North of Las Vegas, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge is enormous, and they just completed a new educational visitor center.  This is a relatively short drive from the city, and you can follow the refuge on Facebook to keep track of their special events.

The Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge, northwest of Las Vegas along Interstate 15, has sponsored cool night hikes and service events, including the "scorpion hunt" where refuge experts took folks on night hikes to spot and learn about these nocturnal creatures. 

Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona is sponsoring a full moon hike and movie night later this month.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Four Mojave Wind Projects Begin Early Environmental Review

At least four separate wind projects in the Mojave Desert are in the early stages of environmental review, according to the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) land records database, and would industrialize over 76 square miles of intact desert and ridgeline if they receive final approval.   Energy companies are interested in several other swaths of the Mojave, but are only evaluating the strength of wind resources or have not taken significant steps toward environmental review.

Laurel Mountain Wind

L.H. Renewables, LLC, A Redlands-based corporate entity registered to a post office box, has submitted a plan of development for the Laurel Mountain wind project, which would involve installing as many as 130 wind turbines on nearly 40 square miles of intact desert west of Ridgecrest.  The company has been testing wind resources in the area for years, and as of early November the BLM initiated environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act.  

[Click on image to expand]  The area in red depicts the approximate outlines of the proposed Laurel Mountain Wind project, located west of Ridgecrest, and north of the Red Rock Canyon State Park.  The company proposes installing nearly 130 turbines in the area.
The Laurel Mountain wind project would be built in between the El Paso Mountains Wilderness area, and the Kiavah Wilderness;  some of the project's proposed right of way overlaps with the Jawbone/Butterbredt Area of Critical Environmental Concern.  Much of the project's footprint would impact habitat identified as biologically important by agencies developing the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, in part because of the presence of Mohave ground squirrel and desert tortoise.

North Peak Wind

E On Climate Renewables remains interested in developing the North Peak Wind project, overlapping with the Juniper Flats recreation area prized by residents of the Victor Valley.  I previously wrote about this project in March;  since then, the company in December submitted a plan of development and the fees necessary to begin the environmental review process.  The company also reduced the size of the proposed project from over 23 square miles to 16 square miles.

[Click on image to expand]  The red area depicts the approximate footprint of the North Peak Wind energy project, and does not include recent modifications reportedly made to the footprint that reduce the project area from 23 to 16 square miles.
This project would new and wider dirt roads into a higher elevation area of pinyon juniper habitat between the San Bernardino National Forest, and the lower elevation creosote scrub habitat. 

Silurian Valley Wind

BLM in early December approved the plan of development for Iberdrola's Silurian Valley wind project, which would industrialize over 10 square miles of intact desert habitat between Baker and Shoshone on the scenic route 127, suggesting the scoping period may begin soon.  The company also plans to build a large solar facility south of the wind project, although the company has not submitted any additional information on the project in recent months, according to BLM records.

[Click on image to expand]  The Google Earth image above shows Phoenix Wind and Aurora Solar LLC plans for a wind and solar facility in the pristine Silurian Valley, north of Baker, and south of Death Valley National Park along the scenic route 127.
The Silurian Valley wind project was previously stalled because of Department of Defense concerns that the project's tall turbines and spinning turbine blades would interfere with military testing and training.  It is not clear if these impacts have been mitigated.   The projects would overlap with areas designated by the BLM as having some of the highest visual resource inventory ratings in the Mojave, and much of the Silurian Valley is identified in the Solar Energy Development program as priority desert tortoise connectivity habitat.

Table Mountain Wind

The Table Mountain wind project is back, this time proposed by Acciona Energy.  The right-of-way, located southwest of Las Vegas, and in the southeastern corner of the Sandy Valley, has changed hands at least twice since 2009 as companies evaluated wind resources in the area.  According to BLM records, Acciona filed a plan of development for the nearly 11 square mile project in November proposing up to 50 wind turbines in the area.

[Click on image to expand]  Note that the red area is just an approximate outline of the proposed right-of-way for the Table Mountain wind project proposed by Acciona Energy.
Pending Construction And Operational

Other wind projects in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts are pending construction or operational.  Some of the most ecologically destructive are sited in the western Mojave desert, and have killed several golden eagles, including LADWP's Pine Tree project, and Next Era's North Sky River Wind.  These projects join dozens of square miles of wind turbines that are part of the Alta Wind Energy Center.  Conservationists are also concerned the wind development spread across the western Mojave Desert and Tehachapi Mountains will impede the recovery of the California condor to its former range.

Elsewhere, the Searchlight Wind project in southern Nevada was approved by BLM, although Duke Energy has not yet started construction.  The area hosts a healthy population of desert tortoises that will be threatened by the dozens of miles of new dirt roads that will be carved into the intact desert for the project.   Further south, the Ocotillo Express wind project has completed construction, although Federal Energy Regulatory Committee reports indicate that it has produced very little of its expected energy, probably due to low wind resources in the area.

In Arizona, BP received approval from the BLM for the Mohave County Wind facility on over 54 square miles of mostly intact desert.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Los Angeles Sells Out Manzanar, Again

What does it say about our respect for the past that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is willing to ignore empty rooftops and parking lots within L.A. city limits - perfectly capable of hosting solar panels - to instead build a massive solar plant right across from the historic site of the first Japanese American internment camp built in 1942? 

As a place, the desert holds a lot of meaning for many people, each of whom holds a different perspective of the desert as an individual.  A peaceful getaway for city-dwellers, a terrain whose story is told in Native American salt songs of spiritual significance, and a place of bittersweet hardship for explorers and miners who sought their fortunes in an unforgiving landscape.   Our perspectives of the desert can be bundles of emotion as varied as the topography and wildlife that calls the desert home.

The desert tells our story as individuals, but also as a society - the good and the bad.  One of those stories is about the internment of Japanese during World War II, including at Manzanar in the Owens Valley.  On February 19, 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and paved the way for the Secretary of War to relocate over 110,000 Japanese Americans to ten camps in remote corners of the United States.  Nearly 11,000 were held at Manzanar, tucked in a desert valley between the Sierra and the Inyo mountain ranges.

Not allowed to take photographs of the guard towers that looked down at the Manzanar camp, Ansel Adams decided to take photos from the guard towers, capturing the perspective of the oppressor over the internees.  Photo by Ansel Adams, from the Library of Congress collection, via the Densho Digital Archive.
The army leased the land for the camp at Manzanar from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) for $25,000 per year from 1942 to 1945.  LADWP was loathe to give up the land; Los Angeles was concerned the Japanese interned at the camp would sabotage its water supply, according to Karen Piper's Left in the Dust: How Race and Politics Created a Human and Environmental Tragedy in L.A.

By the time Japanese internees arrived at Manzanar in March 1942, Los Angeles had already spent decades buying up land and water rights in the sprawling Owens Valley to satiate the growing metropolis over 200 miles away.  By the early 1930s, the town of Manzanar folded beneath the weight of Los Angeles after LADWP purchased farms and water rights that once supported the town's economy.  In many ways, the economy that LADWP suffocated at Manzanar and elsewhere in the Owens Valley was also built on oppression.  Settlers in the Owens Valley fought with the Paiute tribe to seize water rights and land, prompting the U.S military to intervene on behalf of the settlers and eventually relocate many Paiute away from the lands they had irrigated and tended for centuries.

As a society, we have layered stories of human tragedy discordantly on top of the serene desert landscape of the Owens Valley.  And we're not done yet.

Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch

Los Angeles came for the water, and now it wants to tap the Owens Valley for its sunshine, wastefully and inefficiently ignoring better places to generate clean energy within its own city limits.  LADWP wants to build the 2.5 square mile Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch just across the valley from the Manzanar National Historic Site.  The term "ranch" adds a bucolic connotation to what will actually be am industrial-scale sea of metal and silicon surrounded by chain-link fence, disrupting the greasewood scrub habitat that currently provides a seemingly monotonous, but placid view from the confines of Manzanar.  An industrial-scale energy facility, like any other modern development so close to Manzanar, will alter the character and feel of a place that was chosen for its isolation.

[click on image to expand] This Google Earth image shows the layout of the proposed LADWP Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch project in relation to the nearby Manzanar National Historic Site.
As energy expert Bill Powers notes in written comments submitted to LADWP, the city would be better off generating solar energy from rooftops and parking lots within Los Angeles city limits.  From a technical perspective, hundreds of solar panels spread out over a wide area would be less susceptible to variations in output caused by intermittent cloud cover than the single, concentrated solar array that would be built across from Manzanar.   From a social perspective, investing in distributed generation such as rooftop solar would allow Los Angeles to invest in its own community, instead of tearing apart a community and ecosystem far away.

Better Alternatives

According to a study by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation,  rooftops in Los Angeles could generate up to 22,984 megawatts of clean, solar generated electricity during the day.  That's enough to meet half of California's energy demand, and far more than the amount that will be generated by the destructive project LADWP is proposing in the Owens Valley.   For the sake of convenience, I am including some Google Earth images of rooftops and parking lots within L.A. city limits that could host some of the solar panels that LADWP currently plans to install across from Manzanar.

The new Bradley International Terminal at LAX is a shimmering behemoth that reflects the sun's energy back into the atmosphere, when it could be absorbing that energy and converting it into electricity with solar panels, instead.  What better way to drown some of the guilt of carbon-intensive air travel than to be welcomed by a sea of rooftop solar panels?
The vast swath of car rental facilities and parking lots around LAX provide ample opportunities for solar panels. Hertz has already installed some solar panels over a parking lot nearby, but obviously there is room for improvement.

The school on the left side of this image has solar panels over part of its parking lot.  But plenty of other parking lots and rooftops lie in wait of more panels.  And check out the rooftops of the nearby homes - with solar garden policies and an expansion of L.A's feed-in-tariff to benefit residential rooftop systems, these barren rooftops could be put to use, improving real estate values and create local jobs.
Plenty of empty rooftops on warehouses, homes, and shopping centers, not to mention large parking lots.  Let's expand the feed-in-tariff and give our local community a fair return for generating clean energy within city limits.

For an example of how to take advantage of the spaces in our city to generate clean energy, check out Arizona State University's distributed solar generation, with over 20 megawatts of solar panels installed across its campus in Phoenix!


Follow this link to sign the Manzanar Committee's petition demanding LADWP drop its plans to build industrial-scale solar across from the Manzanar site, and urging LADWP to instead consider solar projects within L.A. city limits.