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Federal Government Successfully Plays Enviros on Solar Policy

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In the proposed Brenda, AZ Solar Energy Zone. Some environmental groups are campaigning to develop this piece of Sonoran Desert as an industrial solar facility. Photo by Chris Clarke

There was one unambiguous piece of good news in the long-awaited Supplement to the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (PEIS), released October 27 by the Department of Interior and Department of Energy. That good news: the Iron Mountain Solar Energy Zone (SEZ), which would have occupied 106,522 acres of core Mojave Desert habitat in Ward Valley,
California, northeast of Joshua Tree National Park, has not only been dropped from the program but will be, the Bureau of Land Management claims, protected against future solar development.

Among the reasons the Interior Department cited for dropping the Iron Mountain SEZ from consideration, and declaring the area a "solar right-of-way exclusion area," were effects on nearby wilderness areas and candidate wilderness areas, potential damage to paleontological and archaeological resources, as well as cultural resources important to local Native people, damage to Ward Valley's fragile aquifer and likely damage to air quality in the area. Curtailment of salt and gravel mining north of the SEZ were also cited as concerns.

Six other proposed SEZs have been dropped from the PEIS as well: Pisgah in California, Delamar Valley and East Mormon Mountain in Nevada, Bullard Wash in Arizona, and Mason Draw and Red Sands in New Mexico. Solar development still threatens the areas that would have made up those SEZs, however. The destructive Calico Solar project, in the heart of what would have been the Pisgah SEZ, is still in the planning stages and unlikely to be halted by the change in the PEIS. The BLM says it intends to keep Pisgah and the other five SEZs as "solar right-of-way variance areas," in which solar projects could still be built if the BLM deems the project suitable.

Several other SEZs, including California's massive East Riverside SEZ, have been reduced in size. The result of the SEZ exclusions and reductions in the supplemented PEIS is that the total area of SEZs went from 677,000 acres originally described in the draft PEIS to about 285,000 acres.

The inclusion of the Iron Mountain SEZ in the original document was very likely a bargaining chip intended to be negotiated away. In September 2010 I met in Washington, DC with Ray Brady, the manager of the BLM's energy team. During that meeting Brady, unprompted by me, offered Iron Mountain as an example of an SEZ that should never have been added to the original list. That SEZ, along with Arizona's Bullard Wash and a few others of significant ecological importance, may well have been intended for omission from the final document at the outset, allowing Interior to get the industrial public lands development it wanted while allowing moderate environmental groups to declare victory.

In fact, Interior's omissions are more than some mainstream groups asked for: The Wilderness Society argued in favor of keeping Nevada's East Mormon Mountain, and the two SEZs dropped from New Mexico, as industrial solar development zones despite their ecological importance. It was only due to the efforts of groups such as Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watersheds Project that the SEZs were dropped after all. For some reason The Wilderness Society has decided its mission includes advocating the industrial development of wild lands not meeting their strict definition of "wilderness." As an example, see the Brenda SEZ in Arizona, pictured in the photo above: a thriving bit of Sonoran Desert that fails to meet the definition of "wilderness quality" due to some human impact, but which provides habitat to species such as Gila woodpeckers, desert tortoises, and burrowing owls. The Wilderness Society has gone so far as to publish material encouraging their members to ask that the Brenda area be developed with solar facilities.

Regardless of the politics involved, the significant reduction in area proposed for SEZs has been taken as cause for celebration from a few quarters within the environmental movement. Still, the BLM's potential designation of 20 million additional acres across the West as variance zones takes most of the joy out of the reductions.

Unless the BLM radically changes its past policies, it is unlikely that the agency would deem any project proposed for a variance zone "unsuitable." In part due to explicit Interior Department directives that no agency under Interior is to offer any obstacle to any public lands solar development -- directives that have resulted in industrial projects approved for the boundaries of National Parks, with the Park Service allowed only token resistance -- the BLM has bent over backwards in recent years to allow permitting of even the most environmentally damaging projects.

Projects proposed for variance zones, the BLM warns, will "require appropriate environmental analysis" -- apparently in contrast with the "streamlined" environmental assessment process for projects within the SEZs. The BLM has identified a number of desert tortoise "connectivity corridors" in these variance zones, and says that projects proposed for these corridors inside variance zones will be "discouraged." The BLM does not specify what form this discouragement will take, though the PEIS mentions somewhat more stringent mitigation procedures for projects in tortoise corridors that the BLM does not discourage successfully.

It's worth noting that the notorious Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, along with its neighbors the First Solar Stateline and Silver State projects, are located in one of these proposed tortoise connectivity corridors. Given that tortoises continue to perish as a result of these projects -- the most recent one of which I'm aware being a hatchling killed in September by what developer BrightSource referred to as "Fire Ants" -- the actual protection afforded by BLM's more stringent policies in the corridors is open to question.

The deadline for public comment on this final stage of preparation of the PEIS is set for January 27, 2012. You can download the 582-page supplement at http://solareis.anl.gov/documents/supp/index.cfm.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Tuesday. He's also a co-founder of Solar Done Right and thus doesn't even try to pretend to be an impartial observer of solar development on California's wildlands. He lives in Palm Springs.

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