The Bureau of Land Management announced Wednesday that it's extending the public comment period on a proposed desert solar project in Riverside County until November 14 to make up for October's shutdown of the federal government.
The shutdown took place right in the middle of the public comment period for the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System, which owners BrightSource Energy and Abengoa want to build in Riverside County west of Blythe.
During the shutdown, which lasted from October 1 through October 16, the 4,117-page Draft SEIS was completely unavailable to the public because the BLM's web page for the documents was offline. As ReWire mentioned October 10, that unavailability arguably meant the BLM would be violating the law if the deadline wasn't extended.
The original deadline for public comments on Palen was Thursday, October 24. The new November 14 deadline adds 22 days to the total effective comment period, meaning that the BLM has essentially provided the public with six days more in which to comment than would have been the case had the shutdown not interfered.
The extension, while great for protecting the public's right to comment, may come as bad news for Palen's owners BrightSource and Abengoa, which are seeking to develop the 500-megawatt concentrating solar plant as the joint venture Palen Solar Holdings (PSH). PSH is on a tight schedule for getting the project approved by the BLM and the California Energy Commission. Representatives for the company have said publicly that any delays in the project's approval threaten to derail backing from the project's lenders. PSH had hoped to have both the CEC and Interior Department sign off on the project by January.
The BLM's target date for a final decision on Palen had been January 17. But this 22-day delay may pose a serious obstacle to meeting that deadline. After public comments are gathered on the Draft SEIS, the BLM is legally obliged to weigh any substantive comments carefully as it drafts a Final SEIS, which then must be made subject to public comment.
Though the length of the comment period on a Final SEIS can vary, the law prohibits the Interior Department from publishing a Record of Decision either approving or denying the project until at least 30 days have passed since the Final SEIS is made available.
Which means that in order to meet that January 17 deadline, BLM staff would have to create and publish a Final SEIS in less than a month. That, given the backlog of other work that has piled up during the shutdown, may well be pushing it.
In related news, BLM's Nevada office has similarly extended the public protest period on the Final SEIS for First Solar's Silver State South project near the California state line in the Ivanpah Valley. That protest period had been scheduled to end October 21; it will now last until November 6.
Comments on the Palen Draft SEIS may be sent to the BLM's Frank McMenimen by mail at 1201 Bird Center Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92262; or by email at email@example.com.