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Groups File Protests Of Interior Solar Plan

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (in hat) | Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A number of environmental groups have filed formal protests of the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (PEIS), prepared by the departments of Interior and Energy as a roadmap for public lands solar development. The protests, received by the Obama administration late last week, object to omissions and weaknesses in the PEIS and position the groups for further challenges, possibly including lawsuits.

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The PEIS sets out a basic framework for solar development on public lands in California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. It designates 17 areas across the west as Solar Energy Zones (SEZs), totaling about 285,000 acres, and deems another 1.9 million acres of public lands "variance areas" on which solar development can proceed, albeit without the assessment and permitting shortcuts the SEZs offer.

The groups Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds each filed a formal protest to the PEIS, as did the Seattle-based Western Lands Project, whose protest was also signed by Basin and Range Watch and Solar Done Right. (As usual, full disclosure: I helped found Solar Done Right.)

Under the environmental assessment process established by the National Environmental Policy Act, members of the public can file protests of a project's final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) with the Secretary of the federal agency responsible for the EIS. The Secretary can consider the validity of the protests or decline to when reaching a formal decision on the project at issue, or arrange a settlement meeting with protestors. Few such protests in and of themselves induce an agency to change course on a project, but they do bolster the protestors' case should they decide to file suit over the project once the Secretary issues a formal Record of Decision.

Defenders of Wildlife's Protest focuses on what that group says is a failure to account for a number of categories of protected or otherwise important habitat in the PEIS's Solar Energy Zones and variance areas, including state-level designations such as California's Wildlife Habitat Management Areas. Defenders also protests that the PEIS violates the U.S. Endangered Species Act by failing to exclude important desert tortoise connectivity habitat from variance zones.

Western Watersheds' protest is further-ranging, with detailed objections to omissions in the PEIS relating to habitat issues for endangered species such as sage grouse, delineation of proposed "low-resource-conflict" areas where development would presumably bear less environmental cost, and a lackluster set of alternatives in the final PEIS. Western Lands' joint protest with Basin and Range Watch and Solar Done Right goes into deep detail on the PEIS's lack of a distributed generation alternative.

In its protest, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity objected to the variance areas being included in the PEIS's preferred alternative, called for limitations on pending solar projects outside SEZs, and provided a list of biologically important areas that should be expressly excluded from variance areas.

The Department of the Interior plans to issue a Record of Decision on the PEIS in October.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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