BLM Still Limiting Public Comment on Desert Renewables

Transmission lines in the Desert | Creative Commons photo by Parker Michael Knight

If you wanted an example of just how removed from public oversight the whole desert renewable energy issue has become, it would be hard to find a more egregious one than this public notice, scheduled to be entered into the Federal Register today.

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I've previously reported here on efforts by the BLM to restrict public comment during the scoping process, and this announcement would seem to be more of the same. The announcement is somewhat impenetrable on the first reading, and, if you're like me, on the second and third readings as well. In essence, it announces that the people responsible for assembling the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) have decided that it may be necessary to amend a few Resource Management Plans (RMPs) for parts of the California desert. The notice announces a 30-day scoping period starting today during which members of the public can express concerns over any potential amendments. Those concerns will be tabulated and considered when agencies develop environmental assessment documents for the RMP amendments.

Yeah, my eyes are glazing over too. Fortunately, defining some terms turns out to help a lot.

First off: the DRECP.

The DRECP is a gargantuan set of policy documents mandated by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2008. Its purpose is to streamline the approval of industrial renewable energy development in the California Deserts, whether solar, wind, geothermal, or something else. It does so by guiding developers to lands deemed to be of lower conservation value, while offering developers "endangered species permit assurances" -- meaning that once all the paperwork has been signed and the bulldozers fired up, developers won't suddenly be asked for additional mitigation if an surprise endangered species turns out to live on the land being bulldozed. Such assurances have long been opposed by environmentalists and many wildlife biologists, who point out that it's the endangered species that need additional assurances, not the developers. But since the Clinton Era they've been an increasingly routine part of habitat conservation policy.

The DRECP's territory, outlined in black. Click for larger image | Image courtesy DRECP

The DRECP covers just under 22.6 million acres -- more than 35,000 square miles, almost the size of the State of Maine -- in the California Desert. When completed, it will guide the management and regulation of every aspect of renewable energy development in the deserts from specifications for fences to determining precise routes for transmission to washing trucks out on the worksite -- all with a putative eye toward controlling consequent damage to the desert's non-human inhabitants. The DRECP is expected to serve as a Natural Community Conservation Plan under state law and possibly as a Habitat Conservation Plan under Federal endangered species law as well. Both of these laws were enacted with the intent of making endangered species protection laws more palatable to would-be developers, and both were roundly criticized by wildlife protection activists when they were proposed as a de facto gutting of existing protection laws.

A Resource Management Plan (RMP) is easier to define. In fact, I'll let the BLM do it for us:

A Resource Management Plan (RMP) designates land uses over large areas of public lands. It's prepared by the BLM to serve as a guide for managing public lands and resources... RMPs are key tools used by the BLM to maintain the integrity and sustainability of public lands. They provide a snapshot of permitted land uses and activities in specific areas. They also include Environmental Impact Statements to identify sensitive habitats and other resources to prevent or mitigate impacts from land management activities.

Seems straightforward enough: an RMP determines whether and where you can drive, hunt, graze, log, mine, or set up giant seasonal art festivals on BLM-managed public land.

It also makes sense that if you're enacting a management plan like the DRECP, which covers some of the area included in existing Resource Management Plans, that you might want to make sure the documents don't contradict one another. RMPs are supposed to be amended frequently and rewritten about every twenty years or so, so proposing to amend an RMP isn't a huge deal. In this case, the current draft of the DRECP includes part or all of the lands included in the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) Plan, the Bishop RMP, the Caliente/Bakersfield RMP, and the Eastern San Diego County RMP.

And as required by law, the BLM has announced a "scoping period" during which public comment is accepted to guide the writing of any Environmental Impact Statements the amendments may require.

But what is the public supposed to comment about?

The nature of the amendments may be relatively minor -- say, prohibiting use of large-caliber hunting ammo within a half mile of a proposed wind installation so that you're not always replacing turbine blades -- or much more extensive. Transmission corridors might be moved to cross directly over your favorite campsite. That place you've gone hiking on for the last thirty years might be deemed suitable for massive solar energy development, so that your idyll in the desert will become a paved lot with mirrors and razor wire. There are a lot of possible Amendments one could imagine.

And yet the BLM's Public Notice published in the Register today is almost entirely unhelpful for anyone looking for specifics on the kinds of things such amendments might cover. Here's the nut of the notice:

The BLM has identified the following preliminary issues: special status species, mitigation measures for special status species, vegetation communities, cultural resources, special area designations, and areas of high potential for renewable energy development.

If you want your scoping comments to contain a little bit more heft than "The Amendments should not imperil whatever species they might imperil," you're going to have to do some research into what the DRECP and the relevant RMPs contain, then cross-check for potential conflicts, then do a little background research to find ways to address those conflicts that don't imperil your home, your livelihood or lifestyle, or your favorite species.

Coming up to speed won't be easy. The drafts of the DRECP constitute several dozen documents spread over a number of web pages. Of all those documents, the baseline biology report alone runs 546 pages, not including the appendices.

The RMPs are not exactly a quick read either. The CDCA Plan weighs in at 155 pages. East San Diego County's RMP is 309 pages, the latest draft of the Bakersfield/Caliente RMP runs to 1,334 pages, and the Bishop RMP... well, it would seem the Bishop RMP isn't actually available online.

Aside from the Bishop RMP being unavailable, there's nothing unreasonable about any of this. We're talking complex scientific issues here that can't necessarily be stated simply with any kind of accuracy. That's why regulations allow for scoping periods running for 90 days, or even 120 days. Three or four months is enough time for most people, even those new to the topic, to gain a working familiarity with even a complex bureaucratic issue by studying in two- or three-hour stretches every other day or so.

But the BLM's scoping period here runs for 30 days, the minimum the law allows. This isn't enough time for most people, especially those with full time jobs or young families, to become familiar enough with the documents to make sensible, substantive comments.

What this short scoping period does is really to exclude almost everyone from the opportunity to comment unless they are either quite familiar with the documents already, or paid full time to become familiar with them over the next few weeks. The upshot of this is that substantive comment is, when you get right down to it, restricted to:

  • Other agencies

  • Mainstream environmental organizations

  • Companies with a financial interest in the policies being discussed.

In other words, the same old group of stakeholders that has characterized the renewable energy decision process. And while it may make you feel better to submit a comment that's less technical and more of a Mom and Apple Pie sort of sentiment, such comments are almost never heeded.

This isn't necessarily the last chance for people outside the crony circle to comment, as a draft Environmental Impact Statement for any RMP amendments will have its own public comment period. Of course, the BLM might set that one as short as the law allows them as well. As I said at the start of this commentary, this is only one example of how public comment has been restricted on desert renewable energy issues -- just the most recent one. We do still have the right to request that the scoping period be extended to 90 or 120 days.

Especially since the BLM is asking for our comments on possible amendments to at least one document they aren't making available in the first place.

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 week. He lives in Palm Springs. Read his previous posts here.

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