Energy Advocates, Conservationists Split Over Interior Solar Plan

Banners at a 2010 protest of solar development on public lands in Imperial County | Photo: Larry Hogue/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Friday's announcement by the U.S. Interior Department that it had approved the behemoth Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in six southwestern states (PEIS) prompted reaction from a few environmental groups, though not nearly to the degree that it did when the final draft was released in July.

The PEIS, approved Friday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, would establish 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) totaling about 285,000 acres in California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, in which permitting for utility-scale solar energy development would be expedited, and about 19 million acres of "variance zones" in those states where development would still be allowed, but with less eager assistance from the BLM.

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Within minutes of the final version of the PEIS being released in July, a strongly supportive statement co-signed by large environmental groups, big solar companies, and trade associations hit the internet, singing the Interior Department and Department of Energy's praises. Environmental groups signing the statement included Audubon, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society.

There wasn't that sort of grand orchestrated response on the pro-side this time. Still, within moments of Friday's announcement, a few environmental organizations were making statements for and against the PEIS. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was one of the first out of the gate, with a blog post by Bobby McEnaney that more or less patted Salazar on the back for listening to some of the PEIS's stakeholders:

BLM proposed to allow development on a whopping 22.5 million acres. But that first proposal also included a kernel that would provide a better path forward -- the creation of 24 solar energy zones on 687,000 acres.... Some zones were not adequate for the technological needs of solar development, and other zones were simply ecologically inappropriate for development ... Nevertheless, the Interior Department did another remarkable thing: they listened to the input of stakeholders, and by the summer of 2012, the BLM proposed to focus development to just the solar energy zones, while also eliminating the opportunity to develop essentially without constraints on the 22.5 million acres as originally proposed. BLM also dropped seven poorly designed solar energy zones... and reduced the aggregate acreage by 400,000 acres. That left 17 solar zones on 280,000 acres.

At about the same time, The Nature Conservancy put out a press release calling the PEIS a plan "that will facilitate the siting and construction of multiple solar energy facilities while creating jobs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting natural habitats and contributing to national security."

"The federal solar plan can serve as a model for how the Bureau of Land Management addresses all forms of energy development," Laura Crane, The Nature Conservancy's California Renewable Energy Initiative Director, said in the release. "Honoring the zone approach agreed to by industry, utilities, conservation groups, and other stakeholders is critical to the success of the plan."

Even the warmest environmentalist supporters of the PEIS seem to have trouble with the variance areas. In McEnaney's blog post on the NRDC site, he conveyed his group's sense that the variance areas should be considered a kind of last resort:

[W]hile NRDC supports the flexibility that the variance protocol provides by affording a process for developers to identify potentially additional suitable areas for development, the variance system should be considered as the exception rather than the norm given that the current 17 zones are more than adequate for the foreseeable future.

Opposition was just as swift from a few groups. The Nevada-based conservation group Basin and Range Watch did not mince words in its press statement, sent to ReWire within hours of the Interior announcement on Friday:

"We are proud to be a part of this initiative to cut through red tape and accelerate the development of America's clean, renewable energy," said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. "There is a global race to develop renewable energy technologies -- and this effort will help us win this race by expanding solar energy production while reducing permitting costs." But "cutting through red tape" is actually cutting through the democratic process of listening to the citizens who made comments against this large development of our last wild lands. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) signed in 1970 that protects the valuable resources owned by the public on millions of acres of desert, mountain, grassland, and other natural lands has been progressively weakened, and the very fast review and signing of this massive plan while ignoring alternatives and many sensitive resources, again knocks another leg out from under NEPA. The Solar PEIS is no longer a plan to mitigate Climate Change, but a vast privatization of public lands enjoyed by recreationists, hunters, fishermen, off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, wildlife watchers, wild horse and burro supporters, photographers, campers, birders, and many others who use these lands.

The Seattle-based Western Lands Project, which campaigns against the privatization of public lands throughout the west, scored a quote slamming the PEIS by its executive director Janine Blaeloch in the L.A. Times' Julie Cart's coverage of the PEIS announcement:

"This should all be happening on rooftops and in cities. But that wouldn't profit the big utilities, and industry wouldn't be able to get tax breaks, so we wreck the desert instead. We aren't getting that public land back. Once it's industrialized, everything that lives there and everything we enjoy about it will be gone."

One group that hasn't yet made a public statement on the PEIS is the Hailey, Idaho-based Western Watersheds. The group submitted what might well be the most sweeping and strongly worded protest of the PEIS, with language suggesting the group was keeping open its option of suing over the final policy. Now that Interior has formally adopted the PEIS by way of Friday's Record of Decision, the door is open to possible lawsuits by Western Watersheds or any other group that may have standing to sue. The next few weeks may well prove the most interesting part of the whole PEIS process.

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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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