Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Close the Coolwater Natural Gas Plant

San Bernardino County's ozone levels are ridiculous.  According to the Los Angeles Times, San Bernardino can reach ozone levels of 107 parts per billion (ppb), which is bad for our health and the environment.  The current standard for ozone levels is 75 ppb, set by the Bush administration, but even this is seen as too high.  The Obama administration is proposing to adjust the standard down to 65 - 70 ppb.  Whether we stick with the unhealthy standard of 75 ppb, or go lower, San Bernardino Count has clearly been negligent in addressing a serious health problem, and should be conisdering bold steps to clean up its act.  One obvious step would be to shut down the Coolwater natural gas plant just east of Barstow in the heart of San Bernardino County. 

This old natural gas facility is reaching the end of its life, and contributes to congestion on power lines that inhibits the addition of renewable energy.  Southern California Edison (SCE) - the local utility company that also buys power from the natural gas plant - wants to build nearly 75 miles of expensive new transmission lines (the proposed Coolwater-Lugo transmission line) that would give it the option to keep the natural gas plant online.  Although SCE claims the primary reason for the new transmission line is to connect the Abengoa Mojave Solar project built west of Barstow,  SCE probably could accomodate much more of Abengoa's solar energy if it did not also have to accomodate energy from the natural gas plant on transmission lines. 

The natural gas plant is in need of an overhaul, according to NRG testimony, and NRG may begin shutting down generators at Coolwater in 2018.  NRG does not see much sense in reinvesting in Coolwater if SCE continues its short-term power purchase agreements.  So why don't we just rip the band-aid off and close Coolwater, avoid expensive transmission costs, and clean up our air? Energy storage for rooftop solar and solar on already-disturbed lands almost certainly could help offset the loss of Coolwater's energy production, without the harmful emissions.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Silurian Valley Spared by BLM

If you have ever been to the Silurian Valley, you know it is one of those grand places that inspires and beckons you to pull over, get out of your car, and hike.  After driving on Interstate 15 from Barstow, the Silurian Valley is a strong dose of tranquility, providing relief from the traffic, billboards and franchise restaurants of our Anthropocentric world and what Aldo Leopold called the "epidemic of geometry."  As you drive up the two-lane Death Valley Road,  you leave behind the sight of the small highway outpost of Baker and you are swallowed by the immensity of the Silurian Valley. It is just you and the narrow road dividing thousands of acres of wilderness on either side.  This week, Jim Kenna, the State Director for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in California, spared this place for future generations to experience when he rejected plans by Spain-based Iberdrola to build the Aurora Solar project.

The Silurian Valley, with the Avawatz Mountains far in the distance.  Even further in the background is the southern portion of Death Valley National Park.
Kenna's decision represents a significant milestone under the Department of Interior's Solar Energy Development policy, which seeks to encourage industrial-scale solar energy development in identified "Solar Energy Zones" (SEZ) while applying a more rigorous criteria against projects proposed outside of those zones in areas called "variance" lands.  Iberdrola's Aurora Solar project is the first project to be considered under this variance process in California. 

Rigorous Criteria

The BLM evaluated Iberdrola's proposal against 24 different factors, ranging from the availability of space in existing solar energy zones, impacts on sensitive wildlife and cultural resources.  The project was proposed for a location well over 100 miles away from the nearest SEZ.  The BLM's decision noted that the Riverside East and Chocolate Mountain SEZs both have thousands of acres of land available for new projects, so the destruction of the Silurian Valley was unnecessary.

Native Americans, explorers and traders traversed the Silurian Valley on the Old Spanish Trail that connected Sante Fe, New Mexico with Los Angeles.  The trail crossed the southwestern desert with short distances between natural sources of water - springs still used by wildlife today. Visitors to the Silurian Valley can experience a landscape that still looks much like the way it did to travelers nearly 200 years ago.  There are not that many places in the lower 48 United States where our natural heritage remains so intact; an industrial-scale facility of any kind in the Silurian Valley would dominate the viewshed and undermine the cultural and scenic value of the area.  The BLM's decision notes that the cultural resources of the Silurian Valley weighed heavily in the BLM's rejection of Iberdrola's variance application. 

The BLM also looks at a project's ability to use existing infrastructure when proposing to build a facility outside of a SEZ.  The BLM found that Iberdrola's proposed solar project would require over 40 miles  of new access roads.  And although Iberdrola said it planned to connect its solar project to a nearby LADWP transmission line, it had not yet secured an agreement from LADWP to do so.  If LADWP rejected its interconnection request, Iberdrola's project would require many miles of new transmission lines through the desert to reach other transmission facilities near Primm, Nevada.

The BLM's review of the project application found conflicting views regarding the value of wildlife habitat in the Silurian Valley.  While a Western Governors Council habitat evaluation tool noted only moderate values for wildlife in the Silurian Valley, this tool probably lacks the local detail necessary to make site-specific decisions.  In a letter to the BLM regarding the Silurian Valley, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) noted the importance of the area's intact desert habitat as a key east/west linkage for the desert tortoise.  The FWS also noted that a solar project could become a trap for migratory birds.  Nearby dry lake beds fill up with water after rains, and attract a variety of bird species; these birds could easily mistake a shimmering solar plant for a body of water.

What's Next?

The next major policy decision for the Silurian Valley will be whether or not to keep the Special Analysis Area (SAA) that the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) included in the area.  The fate of the Special Analysis Areas will be decided before the DRECP is finalized - they will either become development focus areas or set aside for conservation.  The BLM's decision to reject Iberdrola's solar application in the Silurian Valley suggests that the Special Analysis Area there stands a better chance of becoming part of the DRECP's conservation lands, but we will only know when the BLM announces its decisions on the Special Analysis Areas.

In the meantime, Iberdrola has 30 days to appeal the BLM's decision to reject the Aurora Solar project, but this is likely to be a steep battle.  Even if the Department of Interior asked the BLM to take another look at its decision,  grassroots and national-level environmental organizations have spoken out against the project.  If BLM ultimately allows the project to go through the full environmental review process, it is likely to be contentious and costly for Iberdrola.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Investigation Sheds Light on Industry Influence over Desert Policy

The Inspector General (IG) of the Department of Interior released a report this month confirming that a senior Obama administration official with cozy ties to the renewable energy industry pressured subordinates to ignore environmental concerns in favor of providing rubber-stamp approval to power plants.  The IG report focuses on the actions of Steve Black - who retired from Interior in 2013 and served as senior counselor to former Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar  - because he dated a lobbyist for renewable energy company NextEra and also put his name forward to serve as CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), all while continuing to manage the approval of renewable energy projects on public lands.  At the very least, Mr. Black's actions constitute the appearance of impropriety that undermines our ability to trust Interior leadership to manage public lands based on sound science rather than special interests.

As senior counselor to the Secretary of Interior, Black had considerable influence and managed to reach into the Department's many offices - including the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) - in an attempt to manipulate the recommendations of environmental impact analysis and wildlife investigations.  The IG report suggests that Black exerted improper influence that resulted in potentially less scrutiny of a wind project that ended up killing a golden eagle in the western Mojave Desert, attempts to manipulate environmental reviews of at least two solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley,  and revisions of the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) to expand the industry's access to biologically sensitive lands.

The IG was prevented from fully investigating Black's actions on behalf of industry.  Although Black and NextEra officials were interviewed early on in the investigation, the IG report suggests that Black and some company officials stopped cooperating with the investigation after the IG uncovered e-mails indicating NextEra believed Black was critical in clearing the path for its projects.

North Sky River Wind Project

The IG report examines whether or not Black's influence facilitated the approval of NextEra's North Sky River wind project in the western Mojave Desert.  The IG report quotes e-mails of NextEra executives who were confident that Black worked at NextEra's behest to prevent a thorough environmental review of the company's wind project, which biologists were concerned could result in the deaths of golden eagles or even California condors.  Although the project was built on private land, it required access to public lands for transmission and fiber optic lines, as well as modification of BLM roads.  NextEra learned in May 2011 that BLM and FWS were discussing whether to conduct a more thorough analysis of the entire wind project as a "connected action."  NextEra complained to Black about the potential environmental analysis, singling out a particular BLM biologist that the company thought was trying to "kill" the project.    Interior only completed a "finding of no significant impact" for the project, and not the more thorough assessment that NextEra dreaded.

Although BLM officials told the IG that their decision to conduct a less thorough environmental review was their own and not a resutl of any pressure by Black, e-mails included in the IG report clearly show that NextEra executives credited Black with the "green light we were expecting," and avoiding "wacky application of law or discretion."

The IG report also shows that Black continued to alert NextEra officials to concerns by wildlife officials that could stop the project, giving the company the ability to quickly intervene with other political contacts.  In June 2011, Black forwarded a California Department of Fish and Wildlife report that expressed concern that the North Sky River wind project would have a significant impact on birds and bats.  NextEra officials then sent it to Manal Yamout, who at the time worked in the office of Governor Jerry Brown, and asked her for "background intel and guidance."  By August 2011, Yamout got a job as a lobbyist for NextEra and began dating Black.

The North Sky River wind project was eventually permitted and built, and killed its first golden eagle in early 2013, just weeks after beginning operations.  According to the IG report, FWS officials reported that they frequently told NextEra that the company should apply for a golden eagle "take" permit.  However, NextEra officials told the IG that Black provided contradictory advice that the company should only complete an "avian and bat protection plan," and that FWS was not yet ready to issue "take" permits.

Pressure to Favor Industry in the DRECP

A deputy division chief for FWS' Region 8 - covering the California desert - told the IG that "Black did not want to “let go” of potential development areas that had environmental concerns, and the DRECP process had been delayed many times by his repeated requests to the team to reassess areas in which renewable energy acreage and megawatts could be added."  An FWS biologist interviewed echoed the concern, indicating that Black put pressure on FWS to keep certain development areas in the DRECP despite concerns that such areas would conflict with wildlife values.

Although the IG report does not state which development focus areas Black sought to include in the DRECP, interviews with some employees indicate Black pressured them to include more development areas for the wind industry.  This pressure on behalf of the wind industry came after Black asked a NextEra executive to submit Black's name as a candidate to be CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), according to the IG report.  The fact the Black was pushing for increased wind industry access to desert wildlands when he was being considered to lead AWEA is extremely troubling.  Documents released in response to a previous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show that Black and other Interior officials communicated closely with AWEA to ensure that the draft Interior regulations did not jeopardize the wind industry's access to public lands and ability to kill bald and golden eagles.

Black's direct outreach to lower-level employees working on the DRECP eventually resulted in a rebuke by the BLM's State Director for California Jim Kenna, who reportedly told Black to stop calling employees working on the DRECP.

The Mojave yucca above are going to be bulldozed to make way for First Solar's Silver State South solar project.  Steve Black pressured a biologist to change the biological opinion regarding the impacts of an unspecified First Solar project on the desert tortoise.  Although the IG report does not specify which project was involved, the Silver State South project is a likely candidate.

Director of FWS Dan Ashe told investigators that he had to complain to Interior leadership about Black's meddling in FWS' review of the BrightSource Energy Ivanpah Solar project impacts on the desert tortoise.  According to the report, Black applied pressure directly to the field office responsible for evaluating the Ivanpah project's impacts.

Black's direct pressure on Interior employees involved in evaluating renewable energy projects apparently did not stop after Director Ashe expressed concerns, since that incident pre-dated Black's outreach to employees working on the DRECP and his apparent engagement with a biologist working on another solar project in the Ivanpah Valley.  A biologist interviewed for the IG report indicated that Black pressured her to change a biological opinion for a project proposed by First Solar.  It is possible that the project in question is First Solar's Silver State South project, which was the focus of contentious evaluation regarding the project's impact on a desert tortoise habitat linkage in the Ivanpah Valley.  However, the biologist told the IG that the biological opinion remained unchanged despite Black's pressure, whereas the record shows that the biological opinion for Silver State South eventually was changed to make way for that project.  It's not clear from the IG report when they interviewed the biologist.  Of note, First Solar sold the Silver State South project to NextEra Energy in October 2013, the same company that previously employed Black's girlfriend as a lobbyist. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Celebrating the Desert Protection Act

Senator Dianne Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act (CDPA) was signed into law 20 years ago on October 31, 1994, establishing new protections for vast stretches of the desert.  The CDPA established 69 new Wilderness areas,  created the Mojave National Preserve, converted Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments into National Parks, and added acreage to both parks.

Watching the sun set in a remote corner of the Mojave forges a connection between me and generations past, and it would be nice to know that future generations will share the same natural heritage.  Witnessing mountain shadows gently stretch across miles of open desert, hearing coyotes howl at twilight as bats flutter by, and being immersed in an infinite blanket of stars overhead are some of the treasured experiences you can have in the desert. 

Clouds stroll across the sky during the midday in the Mojave National Preserve, casting shadows on the mountains and valley.
These experiences are increasingly threatened, however, as cities sprawl outward, new major highways threaten to slice across the landscape, and transmission lines and power plants interrupt the wild.  As we watch industry and other human sprawl carve up the unprotected portions of the desert, pollute its air and spoil the night sky, it is good to hear that the Senator plans to continue her efforts for another desert protection bill that would grant Wilderness and monument designation to more of the desert.  This will not be an easy win, and the Senator has been working on this second desert protection bill since 2009.  The first draft bill of the CDPA that established the Mojave National Preserve was originally introduced in 1986, long before it finally passed Congress in 1994.

If Feinstein's new desert protection act passes, it will be worth the wait.  It would offer more permanent protection status to beautiful landscapes, ensuring that desert's solitude will not be hard to find.  Unlike some of the National Parks on the east coast - where towns and cities may be seen from a large portion of the parks - the American southwest still has much larger intact landscapes where nature dominates, not human society.  And California is especially blessed with grand desert vistas - not what they once were, but certainly unique among the lower 48 United States for their accessibility and intactness.   You can drive  from the southern entrance of Joshua Tree National Park north to Scotty's Castle in Death Valley National Park for 335 miles almost entirely on two-lane road surrounded by beautiful desert, with only minor human interruptions.   And for miles on either side there is a seemingly boundless stretch of wildlands begging for exploration and offering a peaceful moment to appreciate life.