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Energy Commission Gets Tough With BrightSource On Rio Mesa Fossils

The Rio Mesa deposit may hold fossils like these dire wolf skulls at the Page Museum in L.A. | Photo: Dallas Krentzel/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Solar developer BrightSource seems to be digging in its heels at requests for more information on a giant fossil deposit at the site of its proposed Rio Mesa project. But staff at the California Energy Commission (CEC) aren't pulling any punches in insisting the company find out just how extensive the fossil outcrop is, and they've mentioned getting the Commissioners involved.

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The 500-megawatt concentrating solar power station BrightSource is proposing for 4,070 acres of mostly private land southwest of Blythe was found to overlie a deposit of sedimentary rock that has already given up more than 700 fossils to paleontological consultants. The fossils have been dated to approximately 13,600 years before the present, during the time of the last Ice Age. BrightSource objected in March to CEC requests for more detailed information on the site's paleontological resources as being too time-consuming and expensive, but promised to provide additional maps of the deposit in April.

ReWire reported in July that the CEC staff were frustrated with the pace at which BrightSource was providing CEC with information on the site's paleontological resources.

That frustration seems not to have lessened. CEC sent a strongly worded letter to BrightSource on July 30. That letter was posted to the CEC's website yesterday.

The letter, by CEC's Rio Mesa project manager Pierre Martinez, warns BrightSource that the company's recalcitrance in providing the requested paleontological data will "preclude staff's ability to adequately assess... the potential effects that the proposed project would have on paleontological resources."

The letter's second paragraph contains a not particularly veiled threat of ramping up the administrative action:

While we understand the applicant initially filed objections to the data requests referenced above, your provision of some of the information requested subsequent to the objections and engagement with staff on the topic, as indicated in the data responses and through follow-up discussions, led us to believe that your were willing to find a way to provide staff with sufficient information to complete the required analysis, obviating the need for a motion to compel. [Emphasis added.]

A motion to compel would involves asking Energy Commissioners to order that information be handed over.

The CEC letter reiterates the agency's view that BrightSource must conduct exploratory excavations of the site in order to find out just how large and fossil-rich the deposit really is, and gives the developer until August 10 to let the agency know whether it intends to comply. It closes:

Because this information is absolutely critical to staff's analysis, any objection to providing the requested information in the timeframe noted above will necessitate staff bringing the matter before the Rio Mesa SEGF [Solar Energy Generating Facility] Committee with a motion to compel.

The Rio Mesa plant would include upwards of 250,000 mirrored heliostats focusing sunlight on two boilers atop 750-foot power towers. The heliostats would be mounted on pylons driven into the ground by means of vibration. Though BrightSource refers to the vibration process as "non-intrusive," any fossils near the pylon would be destroyed.

BrightSource has a reputation for being less cooperative with agencies than most solar developers are. It'll be interesting to see what happens on August 10. We'll be watching.

Note: a previous version of this piece mentioned the motion to compel in the context of court proceedings. In the specific context of the California Energy Commission, a motion to compel can and often an administrative process involving Commissioners rather than the judicial system. This error has been corrected.

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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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