Interior finalizes massive Calif. desert management plan

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Obama administration has finalized a plan designed to guide commercial-scale wind, solar and geothermal power development across millions of acres of Southern California desert.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell today announced that her department has issued a record of decision (ROD) approving the proposal and three land-use plan amendments covering 10.8 million federal acres as part of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP).

The DRECP, outlined in a final environmental impact statement (EIS) last year, establishes 388,000 acres of “development focus areas” deemed suitable for commercial-scale renewables projects, as well as areas to be protected or managed for their recreational values over nearly 17,000 square miles.

The plan is “the culmination of more than eight years of thoughtful planning” and represents “a path forward for the rest of the nation” when it comes to commercial-scale renewable energy development, Jewell said today in Palm Desert, Calif.

“This landscape-level plan will support streamlined renewable energy development in the right places while protecting sensitive ecosystems, preserving important cultural heritage and supporting outdoor recreation opportunities,” she said.

She noted that the DRECP advances President Obama’s 2013 Climate Action Plan that challenges Interior to approve 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects on federal lands by 2020. It also will help California comply with legislation Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law last week that requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

Environmental groups mostly praised the plan, calling it the right approach to developing commercial-scale renewable energy projects across the Mojave, Colorado and Sonoran deserts.

“This plan is a thoughtful and balanced blueprint for the future of the California desert,” said Dan Smuts, senior director of the Wilderness Society’s Pacific Region. “It provides a model for the entire nation by addressing the urgent need for clean energy while protecting important lands for wildlife and plants.”

But in approving the DRECP, Interior had to address concerns by conservation groups that the plan opens up areas that should not be developed.

Although environmental leaders say they enthusiastically support the DRECP process, groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and National Parks Conservation Association last year filed formal protests challenging a provision in the final EIS that would designate 536,000 acres in the planning area as “unallocated” lands that are open for renewable energy projects (Greenwire, Dec. 17, 2015).

The groups maintained these unallocated areas include important wildlife habitat and migration corridors for sensitive species like desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. They asked the Bureau of Land Management to re-evaluate the natural resource values of these lands and to designate at least some of the parcels as conservation areas before finalizing the plan.

BLM Director Neil Kornze, in a series of “protest resolution reports,” rejected all but a small portion of one of the 43 formal challenge petitions, concluding the agency “followed all applicable laws, regulations, and policies and had considered all relevant resource information and public input” in developing the plan.

Thus, the unallocated lands, which BLM is now calling “general public lands,” are still in the final plan approved today.

But BLM reduced their size to 419,000 acres, and they include specific “conservation and management actions” that must be met before projects are approved on these designated lands. For example, an applicant would need to show the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of a proposed project on a species of concern in the area, such as desert tortoise.

BLM California State Director Jerry Perez and Karen Douglas, a commissioner with the California Energy Commission, yesterday outlined those conditions in the ROD and final plan to E&ENews PM.

The changes BLM incorporated into the 98-page ROD are positive steps, said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife.

The group and the Sierra Club had filed a 42-page protest letter recommending the unallocated lands be ineligible for renewables projects until the development focus areas are built out and there’s a demonstrated need for the unallocated lands to be developed.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted, but on balance I think it’s a good plan,” Delfino said. “This is the first plan where we have a landscape-scale conservation strategy driving the decisionmaking.”

‘A strong foundation’

Perez called today’s ROD a “big milestone” for renewables development in the desert and a major step toward completing the overall DRECP, which covers 22.5 million acres of federal, state, county and private lands in Southern California.

The DRECP, which took eight years to complete, envisions 20,000 MW of new renewable energy development on those lands by 2040.

The ROD signed today covers only 10.8 million acres of BLM lands within the planning area and is effective immediately.

“I think it’s important to really bring more clarity here to the desert,” Perez said in an interview. “We’re doing a lot of renewable energy projects down here, and I think what this brings is more certainty of where renewable energy projects will occur in the future for the renewable energy industry, as well as certainty for the environmental and conservation communities about how the lands would be managed.”

BLM and the California Energy Commission decided last year that they were going to phase in other components of the DRECP (Greenwire, March 10, 2015). The ROD does not address renewables development on 5.5 million acres of private and other nonfederal lands within the massive planning area.

The seven counties within the DRECP planning area — Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties — have jurisdiction over renewables permitting on private lands.

The individual counties are working to incorporate the DRECP into each of their land-management plans, Douglas said, though some have done more work than others.

Inyo and Imperial counties, for example, have already identified renewable energy “zones” where development will be focused, Douglas said. San Bernardino and Riverside counties are working to identify renewable zones, and others, including Kern and Los Angeles counties, are working to implement the DRECP into their general land management plans, she said.

But there’s no timeline for when the counties will complete the work, Douglas said.

“It’s not so much that things are being done as that they are moving into … a new implementation phase,” she said. “The work done on the DRECP provides a strong foundation for BLM to sit down with most interested counties and the state and talk through how do we best facilitate this [plan] in a way that makes sense and is consistent with the underlying science of the plan. But the work of implementation is really long term.”

Smart from the start

Completing the federal portion of the DRECP was one of Interior’s top priorities before President Obama completes his final term in office.

The ROD amends the California Desert Conservation Area and the Bakersfield and Bishop resource management plans to establish the development focus areas on 388,000 acres — equivalent to 600 square miles. BLM will encourage utility-scale solar, wind and geothermal power projects in these designated areas, and projects in the focus areas will undergo a streamlined environmental review because they have already been surveyed and studied.

BLM estimates that development within the focus areas could produce as much as 27,000 MW using 2016 technology, according to the ROD.

One of the guiding principles of the plan outlined in the ROD is that these areas have “high-quality solar, wind, and/or geothermal renewable energy resources.” But renewables projects also “should be developed either on already-disturbed land or in areas of lower biological value, and conflict with both biological and non-biological resources should be minimized.”

Indeed, one of the plan’s major components is that it protects millions of acres of pristine desert.

The plan adds 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 will be managed for their wilderness characteristics and not be available for renewables development.

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

The plan would set “ground disturbance” caps on lands it placed into the National Landscape Conservation System.

In each case, BLM will not deny projects in these areas that have already been approved or that have a “valid” lease, the ROD says. BLM could require proposed projects commit to additional “design features or mitigation” before they are approved.

In addition, the plan establishes 3.7 million acres of recreation management areas on BLM lands, both inside and outside the DRECP planning area. The agency will 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 also establishes about 40,000 acres of so-called variance process lands that are “potentially available for renewable energy development,” but require more review and will not be eligible for the streamlined review.

“It really just signifies our commitment to renewable energy in the desert, as well as our commitment toward providing for the conservation of the natural and cultural and recreational resources that this unique environment provides here,” Perez said.