The federal government's determination that a 400-megawatt solar thermal power plant will not cause significant harm to a pristine strip of the Mojave Desert is a victory for those who want to place dozens of solar arrays on federal land in Southern California.
But a closer look at a federal draft environmental impact statement released last week reveals that even with extensive mitigation, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project would destroy rare plants and permanently alter prized views from the nearby Mojave National Preserve. It would also annually consume an estimated 32 million gallons of groundwater in a region where water is scarce.
Such findings concern environmentalists who are almost certain to challenge the project. They also add to mounting criticism that the Obama administration is rushing to permit utility-scale renewable energy projects without considering the projects' effects on pristine public lands and the rare plants and animals that inhabit them.
Moreover, one of the central strategies for mitigating the project's environmental damage -- the relocation of federally protected desert tortoises -- is projected to kill nearly one out of every six animals that are transported, according to the draft EIS document.
"It's a good project in the wrong location," said Ileene Anderson, a staff biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, which has criticized a similar Mojave tortoise relocation effort involving the Army's Fort Irwin.
The Ivanpah project is one of several renewable energy proposals being fast-tracked under a new Interior Department policy aimed at speeding the development of domestic clean energy. The project's developer, Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc., has indicated it wants to begin construction of the massive thermal solar plant before next March, only weeks after public comment on the draft EIS is set to expire.
But Greg Suba, conservation program director with the California Native Plant Society, said the Bureau of Land Management, which jointly issued the draft EIS with the California Energy Commission, is failing to consider the proposal's greatest shortcoming.
"The question that's not being addressed here is basically why are they going on wild public lands first?" Suba said. "Our organization and many others understand why we need renewable energy, and why large-scale utility projects will need to be part of the initial equation. But why put these big-scale projects in the intact wildlands first?"
As proposed, the Ivanpah project would cut through 4,073 acres of undisturbed land, "substantially affecting many sensitive plant and wildlife species and eliminating a broad expanse of relatively undisturbed Mojave Desert habitat," the draft EIS states. Some of the impacts would be offset by the developer's planned purchase and preservation of 8,146 acres nearby, but such mitigation would not replace "permanently lost" habitat for tortoises and other species, BLM found.
Regulators also noted the project's "unmitigable" impacts to the nearby Mojave National Preserve, where solar arrays "could strongly alter the character of views of Clark Mountain from the valley floor, interfering with the public's ability to enjoy those views."
Yet the draft EIS concludes such impacts are reasonable given the project's "noteworthy benefits" of "reducing global carbon emissions" and helping California meet an ambitious goal of producing 33 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020.
"No matter how we mitigate the project, the question is, 'Is the trade-off in impacts to the desert landscape, which is to be significant, worth the production of green energy from solar power?'" said Jan Bedrosian, a spokeswoman for BLM's California state office in Sacramento.
The Ivanpah project represents the latest in a string of emerging conflicts between environmentalists and federal regulators working to meet an Obama administration mandate to aggressively expand renewable energy resources to replace carbon-emitting fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal.
And perhaps nowhere are the stakes higher than in the Mojave Desert, a landscape many environmentalists believe will soon be under siege from renewable energy developers attracted by the desert's unparalleled solar intensity.
"For us this is a difficult issue because we support renewable energy," said Joshua Basofin, California representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Sacramento. "The difficulty for us is how do we guide these projects to be more environmentally sustainable and minimize impacts to wildlife habitat?"
A total of 126 renewable energy project applications covering 1 million acres are under review by BLM officials for the California portion of the Mojave, according to agency statistics. Those include 63 solar power plant projects that, if built, would cover 567,974 acres.
At the same time, 351,000 acres of Mojave Desert has been designated by the Interior Department as a solar study zone, meaning it could gain even more federal backing as a site for commercial-scale solar development. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said he wants to have at least 13 major solar projects under construction by next year, when the solar study zone areas are finalized.
And last week Interior officials announced they would fast-track five new renewable energy projects in California -- four solar plants and one wind farm -- with hopes of making the projects eligible for grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
But first up is the Ivanpah project, located about 25 miles southwest of Las Vegas. BrightSource Energy has applied for federal stimulus money grants for the project and also is racing to get the permits in hand by the end of 2010.
Keely Wachs, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement that when completed, the Ivanpah complex "will exceed all of the rooftop solar energy installed in 2008 in the United States and more than double the nation's total solar thermal energy capacity."
One of the central challenges identified in the draft EIS is the relocation of at least 25 desert tortoises currently occupying the development site to another location, preferably to the west of the proposed project. Once those relocations have occurred, deed restrictions would need to be adopted that keep the tortoise-occupied land off-limits "in perpetuity."
But relocating tortoises poses inherent dangers to the animals. The biggest problem, experts say, is that the tortoises instinctively try to return to their original burrows. And once in unfamiliar territory, they become easy targets for coyotes, ravens and other predators.
That is what happened last year when the Army moved 600 tortoises from their desert habitat to BLM land to make room for expanded training operations at Fort Irwin, about 50 miles north of Barstow, Calif. Roughly 90 transported tortoises died, primarily from coyote predation, prompting the Army and BLM to temporarily suspend the $8.7 million translocation program (Land Letter, Aug. 13).
"The track record for desert tortoise relocation is definitely suboptimal," said Anderson, the Center for Biological Diversity biologist.
Anderson said BLM should hold off on relocating additional tortoises until they can provide greater certainty that the animals will survive.
But BLM and the California Energy Commission already project that some will not survive the relocation, according to the draft EIS.
"Mortality for translocated desert tortoise has been estimated at approximately 15 percent," according to the draft EIS.
Basofin, the Defenders of Wildlife representative, said he is bewildered that regulators would approve a mitigation strategy that results in the death of federally protected tortoises. "It's enough to make your head explode," he said.
Bedrosian, the BLM spokeswoman, said the agency would look closely at the Fort Irwin relocation problems and make necessary adjustments to the mitigation plan for the Ivanpah site.
"Certainly that's going to be looked at because we want to make sure the tortoise transfer is successful," Bedrosian said.
To some, the fact that energy firms have put a bull's-eye on the Mojave Desert reflects a kind of ignorance about desert ecosystems.
While public perception may hold that desert landscapes are barren, advocates say such notions are false. "It's a diverse area. It's full of life," Suba said. "But there are those who tend to marginalize and be dismissive of the desert as a valuable ecosystem."
Many of those biases are reflected throughout the draft EIS document, critics say.
For example, significant areas will be graded or cleared of vegetation to make way for roads, buildings and solar arrays. That, according to the draft EIS, will destroy habitat for rare plants like the Rusby's desert-mallow, which is classified by BLM as a "sensitive species," as well as the Mojave milkweed, which is found in the Ivanpah Valley project area and has been classified by California as vulnerable to extinction "due to extreme rarity."
Another species expected to be affected by the project is the desert pincushion of which 25 are known to exist in California and "approximately one-third of which occur in the project area."
The draft EIS acknowledges that effects to the Mojave milkweed and Rusby's desert-mallow cannot be sufficiently mitigated. Instead, the state and BLM want BrightSource Energy to conduct surveys for both plants on the more than 8,100 acres it will be required to purchase for the mitigation, as well as any land it purchases to relocate the desert tortoise.
"This requirement does not serve to reduce the impacts of the ... project to less-than-significant levels," according to the draft EIS, "but provides information that might help inform future siting to avoid additional impacts from other development."