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Feds Allow Solar Farm Construction to Continue, Despite Objections Over Threatened Desert Tortoise

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The desert tortoise and their young are not threatened by an extensive solar project in the Mojave Desert, wildlife officials said last week.

In a June 10th letter from Bureau of Land Management, solar company BrightSource Energy received a "notice to proceed" with the next phases of construction for the $2 billion Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System. In April, Phases 2 and 3 were halted when more desert tortoises than expected were found on the project site. The reptile is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's new assessment, called a Biological Opinion, concluded that the remaining phases could go forward, even if an estimated 1,136 tortoises could be injured or killed.

Responding to environmental concerns and protests, BrightSource Energy has begun a "head start" program that protects just-hatched and juvenile tortoises from natural predators until they adapt to the wild. "We're pleased to move forward with the next phase of construction at Ivanpah," said BrightSource chief executive John Woolard in a statement. "We're setting the bar at a very high level when it comes to desert tortoise protection and care."

Not all are convinced.

"I don't even know why we have an Endangered Species Act at this point. The directive has come down from the very top of the Interior Department that we're building these projects regardless of their impact on the environment, and regardless of whether they ever actually offset any carbon," said Chris Clarke, co-founder of Solar Done Right (and contributor to KCET). "The fix is in. To say that killing hundreds, perhaps thousands of tortoises on this site won't jeopardize the species is absolutely crazy. It's unscientific, and the press should be ashamed of itself for uncritically repeating claims about 'no jeopardy' that may as well have been written by BrightSource's PR department."

The project, which supports President Barack Obama's clean air agenda, may still have the Desert Tortoise on the run. Vice President Joe Biden, in writing about government waste, was critical of federal spending helping bring awareness to the endangered species. Wrote the VP: "And I bet you didn't know that your tax dollars pay for a website dedicated to the Desert Tortoise. I'm sure it's a wonderful species, but we can't afford to have a standalone site devoted to every member of the animal kingdom. It's just one of hundreds of government websites that should be consolidated or eliminated."

Meanwhile, the city of Victorville is giddy about the three generating plants, to be built in stages on the 5.6 acre Ivanpah Valley site3 three miles west of the California-Nevada border. "The High Desert has been hard hit by the recession, but solar projects like Ivanpah are bringing much needed economic opportunity and investment to our region," said Ryan McEachron, mayor of Victorville, in the same PR statement from BrightSource.

Ivanpah, BrightSource's first solar farm, has financial investments from NRG Energy and Google, as well as a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the federal government, supporting President Obama's clean energy challenges. BrightSource's Board Chairman John Bryson last month was nominated by President Obama to be the next U.S. Commerce Secretary.

The photo on this post by Flickr user sandy.redding. It was used under a Creative Commons License.