Conservation Groups Warn Against Approval of Ivanpah Projects

Defenders of Wildlife this month warned the Department of Interior that its pending approval of two large-scale solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley would destroy irreplaceable desert habitat and degrade an important wildlife linkage, despite smarter alternatives.  In a separate letter, the Nature Conservancy noted that Interior's approval of the projects would ignore science-based guidance on how to manage public lands and minimize impacts of energy projects.

The two solar projects - First Solar's Silver State South and Sateline projects - would be built on the California-Nevada border on a narrow corridor of habitat that connects different populations of the beleaguered desert tortoise.  A loss or degradation of this habitat linkage would make it more difficult for the desert tortoise to recover from the downward spiral it has experienced over the last half century, and erode its resilience as it faces a host of human threats, including climate change.  Conservationists argue that the projects' solar panels could be placed on already-disturbed lands or rooftops; there is no reason these two projects must be built in a place so important the health of the Mojave Desert ecosystem, and the survival of the tortoise.  In fact, the persistent threat we will face from climate change - even if we shut off all carbon emissions overnight - requires that we take a more thoughtful and sustainable approach to the deployment of clean energy.

A map included in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Silver State South project shows how the width of the desert tortoise linkage (in green) will be impacted if the Silver State South project (blue outline) is built.  The primary connectivity corridor would be reduced significantly, leaving a 1.39 mile corridor at the narrowest point. The corridor has already been impacted by the Silver State North project, and a natural gas plant (in orange).

Defenders Postures for Legal Action

Interior in September signalled its intent to approve both the Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects when it published a biological opinion for both projects that suggested that the projects' impacts on the habitat linkage could be "mitigated."    Defenders responded to the biological opinion with a notice of intent to challenge Interior's review of the projects under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Interior's pending approval of the projects ignores biologists' research - and Interior's own policy - that designates the Ivanpah Valley as an important wildlife corridor that should be off-limits to future industrial development.  The Solar Energy Development Program established the Ivanpah Valley as an "exclusion zone" that would prohibit large-scale habitat destruction for solar projects;  the two First Solar projects were excepted from this policy, however, because they were in the permitting phase before the policy was finalized.

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) late last year recommended that the Bureau of Land Management deny approval of the project because of the potential loss of an important linkage.  Probably in part because of political pressure, FWS changed its tune in the biological opinion released in September 2013, although only half-heartedly.  As I noted in my last blog post on the biological opinion, FWS is ultimately unsure as to whether or not the Silver State South solar project will diminish the viability of the desert tortoise habitat linkage.  FWS acknowledges in the biological opinion that the consequences of a lost habitat linkage could be severe:  two isolated populations of desert tortoise across over 500 square miles that will be too small to maintain population growth over time.

In its notice of intent to take legal action, Defenders states:
"Indeed, the FWS’s determination to roll the dice with the Tortoise’s fate and hope for the best also contravenes the most fundamental premises underlying section 7(a)(2) of the ESA. In adopting that provision, “Congress has spoken in the plainest of words, making it abundantly clear that the balance has been struck in favor of affording endangered species the highest of priorities, thereby adopting a policy which it described as ‘institutionalized caution.’”... Plainly, the high-risk approach adopted by the Service here is the very antithesis of the “institutionalized caution mandate” embodied in section 7."
Defenders' response to Interior also takes issue with the biological opinion's changing tune on the effectiveness of translocating desert tortoises from sites being destroyed for projects to intact habitat.  In the biological opinion, Interior states that "post-translocation survival rates will not significantly differ from that of animals that have not been translocated." Research indicates - and Interior has previously acknowledged - that tortoises relocated from their homes are much more likely to die within a few years.  Ten tortoises translocated this year from the Moapa Solar project site under construction in Nevada died within months of being moved.  Defenders points out that FWS itself stated in 2012 that it “does not support translocation as a proven minimization measure for development projects."

Nature Conservancy Expresses Concern

The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) letter to Interior in response to the final environmental review of the Silver State South project and biological opinion for both the Silver State South and Stateline projects raises serious concerns regarding Interior's adherence to its own policies.  TNC points out that the project does not conform to Interior's own approach to landscape-level conservation and planning, or its policies on mitigating the impacts of approved projects.

Regarding landscape-level planning, TNC notes that: 
"BLM’s preferred alternative to site another large solar facility in the Ivanpah Valley in Nevada does not conform to the interests of the recovery of desert tortoise; converts irreplaceable, high quality habitat; and restricts an important tortoise corridor. Further, relative to the magnitude of the habitat values that will be lost, the mitigation measures are not sufficient in scope or magnitude, nor are they sufficiently durable."
The TNC letter cites Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell's order number 3330 as identifying proper land management and durable mitigation measures as necessary to achieve a balance in managing public lands, especially to enhance the resilience of our wildlife in the face of climate change.  It is ironic that a solar project intended to ease the burden of climate change could have the opposite effect.  I am sure some will argue that these two projects should be approved so that the tortoise can face a better chance of survival from climate change, but we have to remember that the deleterious impacts of the greenhouse gas emissions already in the atmosphere will persist for decades, regardless of whether or not these particular projects are built.  According to Nature, "even if carbon-dioxide emissions were to cease overnight, the half a trillion tonnes of carbon that have been pumped into the atmosphere since major industrialization began in around 1850 will affect Earth’s biosphere, glaciers and oceans for centuries to come," in its coverage of the International Panel on Climate Change's report.

With this persistent threat in mind, it is imperative that our deployment of clean energy happen quickly, but with great care for the ecosystems and natural resources we would like to protect.  Tactical patience - taking the time to identify the best places for clean energy projects, and protecting the places that are important to the survival of wildlife - will pay dividends in the long run, whereas sloppy planning and deployment will leave us with more messes to clean up in the decades to come. Interior's plan to approve two First Solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley does not exhibit this level of care or concern for the sustainability of the Mojave Desert, and jeopardizes the recovery of the desert tortoise.

Below is a copy of Defenders of Wildlife's Notice of Intent to take legal action against Interior for violating the Endangered Species Act:


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