Calif. county rejects massive BLM-approved project

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, August 26, 2016

A Southern California county refused to authorize a sprawling solar power project yesterday, jeopardizing the contentious federally approved project.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors yesterday voted not to approve the county’s environmental review of the 287-megawatt Soda Mountain Solar Project, which has drawn widespread opposition for its location near the Mojave National Preserve.

The supervisors also declined to consider county permits to let project developers dig two groundwater wells during the planned construction and operation of the plant to suppress dirt and to clean solar panels.

The county decision is a major blow for Soda Mountain Solar just months after the federal Bureau of Land Management approved the project on more than 1,700 acres of federal land in San Bernardino County. The photovoltaic solar plant would have the capacity to power 86,000 homes and businesses.

The project proposed by Menlo Park, Calif.-based Regenerate Power LLC cannot move to the construction phase without local and state permits, BLM spokeswoman Martha Maciel said.

“Our permit is contingent on them attaining their local and state permits, and so the construction and operation of the project is still contingent on that,” Maciel said. “It’s the company’s responsibility to attain those permits. We don’t get in the middle of that. But they can’t break ground and start construction until they’ve met those local requirements.”

Under the California Environmental Quality Act, San Bernardino County must certify the environmental review. The county supervisors balked, expressing concern that the industrial-scale power project would degrade the desert environment, according to press reports of yesterday’s hearing.

The county conducted an environmental impact report, while BLM conducted a yearslong environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project.

When BLM approved the project in April, it was proposed by a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Bechtel Development Co. Inc., which has since sold the rights to the project to Regenerate Power, a utility-scale developer.

Regenerate Power Chairman and CEO Reyad Fezzani said today in a statement that the company is disappointed by the county’s decision but vowed to push forward.

“Clearly, the sound science and many years of careful study and evaluation by federal, state, and county agencies and the project sponsor, were swept aside by emotive arguments by the opponents based on fear and misunderstanding,” Fezzani said.

“We remain committed to seeing the many benefits of Soda Mountain Solar through to fruition, including hundreds of well-paying local union jobs, economic benefits to the county and local economy, and the production of clean solar energy to meet California’s growing demand,” he added.

In issuing a record of decision (ROD) last spring, the Interior Department hailed the Soda Mountain Solar Project despite near-unanimous opposition from the National Park Service, environmental scientists and numerous conservation groups (E&ENews PM, April 5).

The project has become a nationwide symbol of the threats posed by outside development to national park units, in this case the Mojave National Preserve less than a mile away from the proposed project site.

But Janice Schneider, Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, signed the 35-page ROD, praising the “comprehensive, multiyear environmental review” of the project, saying it reflected the Obama administration’s “commitment to facilitate responsible clean energy development in the right places and in the right ways.”

BLM Director Neil Kornze called the project “another step forward toward diversifying our nation’s energy portfolio and meeting the state of California’s growing demand for renewable energy.”

Moreover, he said the project “is consistent with the BLM’s landscape approach for the California desert, which supports careful development of renewable energy where it makes sense while protecting the resources and places that make the desert special.”

But conservationists and other stakeholders who have opposed the project since it was proposed in 2007 praised the county’s decision.

The biggest source of concern is the proposed project’s location near the Mojave National Preserve — the third-largest national park site and the largest in the Lower 48 states — as well as the Soda Mountain and Cady Mountains wilderness study areas.

A group of former Interior officials, including three former Mojave National Preserve superintendents, along with conservationists, scientists, and local business and government leaders, last year submitted a petition letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking her to reject the project (Greenwire, April 20, 2015).

And BLM California’s own Desert District Advisory Council last year formally requested the agency not advance the project because the council said it cannot be reconfigured at its proposed location near the national preserve without harming wildlife, groundwater quality and other natural resources.

David Lamfrom, director of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association’s California Desert and National Wildlife Programs, said the San Bernardino County supervisors had the courage to do “what the Interior Department would not; they denied the nation’s worst renewable energy proposal.”

“The science was clear, as were the impacts identified by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service, and Interior Department-appointed advisers,” he added. “This project is known to be poorly located, and the risks far outweigh the benefits.”

Awkward spot for BLM

Part of Interior’s reasoning for approving the project hinged on a revised plan for the solar power plant outlined in the final EIS released by BLM last year. The revised plan significantly reduced the size of the project to 1,923 acres from 2,557 acres (E&ENews PM, June 5, 2015).

The project footprint has since been shrunk further to 1,767 acres, which also reduced the power capacity of the solar plant to 287 MW from the original 358 MW.

The agency’s revamped plan also included removing the so-called north array of solar panels on about 455 acres on the east side of the project site — a move that BLM officials say eliminates visual impacts to the Mojave National Preserve.

The revised plan also addressed concerns that the project would cut off a potential future migration corridor for bighorn sheep, as well as affect threatened Mojave Desert tortoise habitat.

It also included a groundwater study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey that concludes that pumping up millions of gallons of water to clean solar panels and control dirt and dust would not “measurably affect” nearby springs and seeps, including those inhabited by the endangered Mohave tui chub.

The project’s two groundwater wells would pump up about 8 million gallons a year once the plant is in operation, according to BLM’s final EIS. Regenerate Power would be required to monitor groundwater, and if the levels dip below certain thresholds, the company would be required to curtail or cease use of the groundwater, according to BLM.

But the approval of the project also included “standard stipulations that the company must secure all state and county permits before any ground disturbing activities may occur on public lands,” BLM said today in a statement.

Still, the county’s decision places BLM in an awkward situation.

Soda Mountain Solar would advance President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, as well as the administration’s goal of developing solar, wind and geothermal power projects on federal lands.

Obama has challenged Interior to approve 20,000 MW of non-hydropower renewable energy projects on federal or tribal lands by 2020, a goal Jewell told congressional leaders during budget hearings in March that the agency is on track to meet.

Including Soda Mountain Solar, BLM has permitted 35 solar power projects on federal or tribal lands since 2009. Those projects alone, if built, would have the capacity to produce nearly 10,000 MW of electricity, or enough to power more than 3 million homes.