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Public Opposition Forces Major Changes for Desert Renewable Energy Plan

A desert solar installation in California | Photo: FredBaby13/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Stringent criticism of a draft of a 12,000-page plan that would manage renewable energy development on 22 million acres of the California desert has forced a drastic change in strategy for the agencies pushing the plan.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, known as the DRECP and released in draft form in September by a consortium of state and federal agencies, has drawn heavy criticism. Five of the seven counties included in the plan area have expressed reservations about participating, and both environmental groups and energy companies have slammed the DRECP's mind-numbing complexity and apparent inconsistencies.

Given that criticism, the plan's authors announced a radical shift in direction Tuesday morning. The DRECP will be developed in "phases." State agencies contributing to the DRECP will be taking more time to develop plans for energy development on private lands that can get buy-in from counties and developers. But first, the Bureau of Land Management will be releasing a phase of the plan that covers energy development and conservation on public lands.

The agencies that had drafted the DRECP were the California Energy Commission, the California Department of Fish And Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Collectively known as the Renewable Energy Action Team, or REAT, the agencies said that the decision to approach the DRECP in a phased form was mainly reached due to feedback from counties.

In a press release Tuesday, the REAT says the DRECP received 12,000 public comments on the plan; environmental groups that organized public comment on the plan have placed that figure higher.

"Using a phased approach to the DRECP allows us to build on county priorities and address local needs in the planning process," said Karen Douglas, Commissioner of the California Energy Commission. "We believe moving forward in this way will help California and the nation meet long-term climate and clean energy goals while conserving our desert's unique and valuable resources."

Douglas said in an online public information event Tuesday that the overall plan will contain two phases. The BLM's phase will focus on the section of the draft DRECP that covered amendments to the agency's Land Use Plans for the California desert. Those Land Use Plans guide development policy of BLM lands.

The second phase will cover permitting procedures and endangered species issues subject to state agency overview.

"The agencies are committed to maintaining linkage between the BLM Land Use Plan and other components of the DRECP," said the BLM's California state director Jim Kenna. "We will continue our interagency coordination to achieve the goals of the DRECP."

Rather than go back to square one with the environmental review process, the BLM intends to release its phase as a Final Environmental Impact Statement using the same range of alternatives as presented in the draft DRECP. The move is nearly guaranteed to spark significant criticism due to the significant changes within those alternatives this phasing process will make necessary. Releasing the BLM's phase as a Final Environmental Impact Statement may even open the REAT to charges of "piecemealing," or conducting environmental review of a project in separate segments. Piecemealing is prohibited by federal law.

One big change within the BLM's alternatives involves the loss of private lands from consideration. The draft version of the DRECP released in September would have designated about 2 million acres of the California desert as renewable energy "Development Focus Areas," and about 5 million additional acres as newly protected conservation lands. But some of those Development Focus Area in the draft plan included significant amounts of private lands. The BLM has no jurisdiction over renewable energy projects on private lands unless their transmission lines or road access crosses public land. That means the energy development portions of the BLM's phase will need to focus on development on public lands

And that could mean an increase in public lands designated for renewable energy development, and that has some environmental protection activists concerned.

"Breaking the plan up into two parts is troubling, because it means that the BLM could add more public lands to the Development Focus Areas and designate less for conservation" said Barbara Boyle of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "If the federal government recognizes that the plan is phased, and that private lands will be considered in the state phase, perhaps they won't add more public land," Boyle added. "We hope that's the case."

One thing especially worth noting: a majority of the public comments on the draft DRECP seemed to call for a distributed generation (a.k.a. "rooftop solar") alternative to the draft plan, in which power would be generated in the built environment rather than on open lands in the desert. Starting with a BLM phase that focuses on public lands development of utility-scale renewable energy would seem to be a step in the opposite direction.

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