Groups Sue U.S. Government Over Solar Plan

Map detail of Solar Energy Zones (blue) and variance zones (red) from the Solar Energy Environmental Mapper

Three groups that have been vocal opponents of utility-scale solar development on public lands sued the U.S. Department of the Interior today, charging that it failed to consider less environmentally damaging alternatives in preparing its Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (Solar PEIS). The groups charge that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) should have examined alternatives that concentrate development on disturbed lands and in the urban environment.

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The groups are the San-Diego-Based Desert Protective Council, Western Watersheds, and the Western Lands Project. Plaintiffs are represented by Western Lands Project Staff Attorney Christopher Krupp.

(Full disclosure: I worked on a contract basis for Desert Protective Council until December 2011 as that group's communications coordinator, and have done some contract-based design and editing work for Western Lands Project. Neither of those relationships involved the lawsuit.)

In the filing, plaintiffs allege that the defendants (BLM and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar) violated NEPA when the BLM approved the Solar PEIS without properly defining a "purpose and need" for land plan amendments included in the PEIS, or reviewing a reasonable range of alternatives to the Department's "preferred alternative."

That preferred alternative, approved in October 2012 by the Interior Department, establishes 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) in California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, comprising 285,000 acres, in which permitting for utility-scale solar energy development would be expedited, and about 19 million acres of "variance zones," in which additional solar development would be allowed -- though without the shortcuts available to developers in the SEZs.

Two of the SEZs are in California: the 5,722-acre Imperial East near Calexico, and the 147,910-acre Riverside East SEZ between Desert Center and Blythe. The Riverside East SEZ is the largest of the 17 Solar Energy Zones.

"The Administration is opting to needlessly turn multiple-use public lands into permanent industrial zones." said Janine Blaeloch of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project. "Solar development belongs on rooftops, parking lots, already-developed areas, and on degraded sites, not our public lands. "

"The public lands of our southwestern deserts provide habitat for many special status species of wildlife and rare plants," added co-plaintiff Michael Connor, California Director for Western Watersheds Project. "If these species are to survive in the face of climate change, we need to protect their habitat, not convert it into an industrial wasteland."

"Our desert species and ecological communities are already severely stressed by urbanization, roads, transmission lines, mining, military uses, recreation, grazing, and other impacts," said the Desert Protective Council's Terry Weiner. "Interior's plan intensifies the potential for permanent loss of all the things people cherish about the desert -- uncluttered vistas, dark night skies, and deep peace and quiet."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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