BLM advances federal portion of massive Calif. desert plan

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, November 13, 2015

The Obama administration yesterday advanced the federal portion of a major plan designed to guide commercial-scale wind, solar and geothermal power development across millions of acres of Southern California desert.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced completion of a final environmental impact statement (EIS) and three proposed land-use plan amendments covering about 10 million acres of federal lands as part of the first phase of implementation of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP).

The overall DRECP unveiled in draft form last year called for establishing “development focus areas” deemed suitable for commercial-scale renewables development, as well as areas to be protected or managed for their recreational values, within a 22.5 million-acre planning area that includes federal, state, county and private lands in the Mojave, Colorado and Sonoran deserts.

Today’s final EIS and proposed land-use plan amendments cover only 10 million acres of federal lands within the planning area. The Bureau of Land Management and California Energy Commission (CEC) decided last spring that they were going to phase in major components of the DRECP, and today’s announcement does not address renewables development on 5.5 million acres of private and other nonfederal lands within the massive planning area (Greenwire, March 10).

But Jewell today called completion of the final EIS “another major milestone in our ongoing efforts to support renewable energy on public lands.” And BLM Director Neil Kornze, California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird and others said in a conference call with reporters that the federal portion of the plan provides a foundation that will allow state and county leaders to complete the plan that envisions 20,000 megawatts of new renewable energy will be developed within the boundaries of the planning area by 2040.

Jewell touted the federal portion of the DRECP as advancing President Obama’s Climate Action Plan for combating climate change unveiled in 2013. Among other things, the climate plan challenged Interior to approve 20,000 MW of renewable energy projects on public lands by 2020.

She said the final EIS and land-use plan amendments were being released today as part of “the run-up” to Obama’s appearance at the upcoming international climate negotiations beginning this month in Paris.

“Public lands administered by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management play a key role, not only in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to approve 20,000 MW of renewable energy on public land by 2020, but also in helping California meet its goal to achieve 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030,” Jewell said.

Laird noted during the conference call that the DRECP also dovetails with California’s ongoing efforts to meet state goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

“This effort and this announcement,” he said of the federal portion of the DRECP, “helps California on the path to meet those goals.”

Mixed reviews

The final EIS evaluates the proposal to amend three BLM land-use plans for the California Desert Conservation Area and the Bakersfield and Bishop resource management plans to establish the development focus areas on 388,000 acres where BLM will encourage utility-scale solar, wind and geothermal power projects. Proposed projects in these designated areas would undergo a streamlined environmental review because the focus areas have already been surveyed and studied, and mitigation requirements already established as part of the conservation plan.

The plan would also add a total of 3.6 million acres to the National Landscape Conservation System, and 1.3 million acres to proposed or existing “areas of critical environmental concern” (ACECs) that have been designated to protect the California condor, desert bighorn sheep and burrowing owl, among others. An additional 18,000 acres would be managed for their wilderness characteristics and not be available for renewables development, according to the final EIS.

The plan says it would also add 287,000 acres to the National Landscape Conservation System and ACECs outside the DRECP planning areas.

Kornze said a record of decision formally approving the federal portion of the DRECP should be issued by early next year.

The final EIS and proposed land-use plan amendments would also establish 3.7 million acres of recreation management areas on BLM lands, both inside and outside the DRECP planning area. The agency would not accept renewable project applications on lands inside either the conservation or recreation designated areas, except for some geothermal activity in the recreation areas as long as there is no surface occupancy.

The federal portion of the plan would also establish about 40,000 acres of so-called variance process lands that are “potentially available for renewable energy development,” but that would require more review and “would not receive the [streamlined review] incentives that apply” to projects in the development focus areas, according to the final EIS.

The plan outlined in the final EIS drew cautious support today from conservation groups that have followed the issue closely.

“The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan provides a solid blueprint for carefully balancing public land conservation with renewable energy development in the California desert,” said Ken Rait, director of the U.S. public lands program at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Pew applauds the Bureau of Land Management for making permanent the protections for the areas it is now designating as National Conservation Lands, thus adding them to the agency’s premier network of safeguarded areas across the country.”

Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, echoed Rait’s comments.

“There is much to celebrate as the DRECP plan reflects the Obama administration’s commitment to finding lower conflict sites for renewable energy development while protecting our wildlife legacy,” Delfino said.

But Delfino also cautioned that the final plan opens up areas, particularly in the West Mojave Desert region, that could imperil desert tortoise and the Mohave ground squirrel.

“We urge the BLM to improve protections for desert wildlife in the Fremont Valley, Rose Valley, North of Kramer area and the Pisgah Valley in its final plan,” she said.

Similar concerns were expressed last year when the draft plan drew 16,000 public comments, some of which were sharply critical of aspects of the plan.

Kornze said the final plan was “shaped” by those public comments. Indeed, the final plan addresses some of these concerns, including removing from development a section in the Silurian Valley that some complained included sensitive wildlife habitat that should not be open for development.

David Lamfrom, director of the California Desert and Wildlife Program for the National Parks Conservation Association, applauded the “common-sense decision to protect the remarkable Silurian Valley in the final DRECP.”

But Lamfrom also noted that the final plan does not appear to address two proposed renewable energy projects that he said could undermine the entire DRECP process.

The projects of concern are the 358-MW Soda Mountain Solar Project in San Bernardino County, which is proposed to sit less than a mile from the Mojave National Preserve, and Eagle Crest Energy Co.’s Eagle Mountain pumped storage hydroelectric project on 2,700 acres in Riverside County near Joshua Tree National Park.

“In the end, the final plan advances renewable energy and some important protections for desert ecosystems but does not remove real and immediate threats to desert national parks that could forever change the lands the plan seeks to steward,” he said.

Incomplete plan

Another concern is that the final EIS and proposed land-use plan amendments represent just one part of the three-part plan unveiled last year that is supposed to guide commercial-scale solar, wind and geothermal power development across the entire 22.5 million-acre planning area.

And even though the vast majority of the planning area — 17 million acres total — is on federal lands, there are millions of acres of highly developable state, county and private lands in the planning area not covered by the final EIS and proposed land-use plan amendments.

BLM and the CEC made the decision last spring to delay the nonfederal portion of the plan because many of the public comments on the draft plan raised substantive concerns about how it will affect local county authority over projects on private lands.

The seven counties in the DRECP planning area — Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties — have jurisdiction over renewables permitting on private lands, and they are currently working on their own renewable energy and conservation plans.

At least five counties complained that the DRECP does not conform to their previously established or developing renewable energy plans. The counties asked BLM and the state for more time to ensure that the local plans they are working to finalize align with DRECP objectives, and that process remains ongoing.

Karen Douglas, a commissioner with the CEC, said in an interview that the county portion of DRECP covering private and other nonfederal lands likely will be phased in “over the coming years.”

But Douglas said having the BLM plan in place “will provide certainty for assisting developers with where they can go” in the meantime and “provides a really needed foundation for local government and stakeholders and the public as we continue to move forward and address the issues of renewable energy development on private lands.”

In the meantime, some counties have moved quickly to finish their renewable energy plans.

Inyo and Imperial counties have finished their renewable energy plans, and “large parts of the planning area are already relatively clear” on the issue of where renewable energy should go, said Jim Kenna, who until retiring last month was the BLM California state director who helped develop the plan over the past five years.

Kenna has stayed on at BLM to serve in an advisory role until the DRECP is completed, he said.

But Kern and San Bernardino counties, which includes nearly 12 million acres within the DRECP planning areas, “are not far along” in their planning yet, he said.

Rait said the “county-by-county decisions on what nonfederal lands will be made available for such development are a critical component in striking the right balance in the desert” and will be key in judging the ultimate merits of the plan.

Meanwhile, Douglas said, “We fully expect development to move forward on public and private land. The phasing-in of the DRECP does not stop development on private lands.”

More unfinished business

There are other sections of the overall DRECP that also remain unfinished.

Federal and state regulators last spring agreed to delay completing an overarching conservation strategy covering the entire 22.5 million-acre planning area that is designed to protect and enhance 37 sensitive species and their habitat, including the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, California condor, desert bighorn sheep and burrowing owl.

In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service has also slowed development of a “General Conservation Plan” that would allow the service to streamline the permitting process for renewable energy projects on nonfederal lands in the planning area, including incidental take permits involving endangered or threatened species for renewable energy or transmission projects as long as the project backers agree to the conditions outlined in the DRECP.

In both cases, FWS and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said they want to work with counties to address concerns about how these plans would affect renewables development on private lands within their jurisdictions.

Douglas said the CEC and BLM by the end of the year are working to publish a list of the conservation goals covering the entire 22.5 million-acre planning area that were outlined in the draft document last year, showing what’s been achieved on the conservation side by adopting the BLM portion of the plan, and what still needs to be done.

“We are continuing to work to establish a framework to ensure that the planwide conservation vision across the public and private lands designated in the draft DRECP continues to move forward,” she said.