A draft plan released last month that would manage millions of acres of the California desert for renewable energy development is profoundly anti-democratic.
The Draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, or DRECP, made public in late September after two years of delay, would streamline development of wind, solar, and geothermal energy resources on about two million acres of the California desert – 3,125 square miles, an area more than six times the size of Los Angeles. The plan would also designate close to five million acres as conservation areas to be managed for protection of a number of so-called “covered species.”
DRECP’s scope is gigantic, in other words, and that’s a problem. An attempt to plan for both the development and conservation of most of the California desert, the DRECP is so complex and so huge that substantive public comment on the plan would be nearly impossible even if the public had a far longer deadline for comments than early January. And that obstacle to full public comment is bad for democracy.
The draft DRECP is a mind-bendingly massive and complex document. As downloaded from its website, its six volumes comprise 6,030 pages divided up into 92 separate PDF documents, and that’s not including the 24 appendices and a number of GIS map shapefiles.
When ReWire reported on the draft’s release on September 23, we said, “The document… is massive – and we’ll be poring over it in the next few days and reporting back.” Since then we have been poring, and poring, and poring.
Even just the plan’s Preferred Alternative – the version of the plan that the document’s framers say they intend to choose, pending public comment – is 450 pages of occasionally impenetrable jargon. Reading that preferred alternative in any kind of expedient manner requires either extensive prior experience with the document, deep working familiarity with desert land management bureaucracies, or an ability to memorize acronyms and bits of jargon on the fly, or preferably all three.
Here’s an example, a relatively straightforward passage from page 9 of the PDF containing the preferred alternative:
In summary, the Preferred Alternative would include approximately 2,024,000 acres of DFAs. Study Area Lands include 128,000 acres of FAAs, 42,000 acres of SAAs, and 13,000 acres of DRECP Variance Lands. The Plan-Wide Reserve Design Envelope would include 7,662,000 acres of existing conservation areas, 6,177,000 acres of BLM LUPA conservation designations, and 1,142,000 acres of Conservation Planning Areas.
That’s nine pieces of unfamiliar jargon in two sentences.
To be fair, each term of art is defined earlier in the PDF. On the other hand, those definitions don’t always provide all that much clarity for the lay reader. Here, for instance, is the definition for the acronym SAA in the above quote:
Special Analysis Areas (SAAs): These represent areas subject to ongoing analysis to inform the designation that is expected to be made for the areas prior to the signing of a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Record of Decision(s) (ROD[s]) and CEQA certification for the EIR/EIS, respectively. The SAAs are known to have high value for renewable energy development and high value for ecological and cultural conservation and recreation. Following further analysis, the SAAs would be designated as either DFAs or included in the DRECP Plan-Wide Reserve Design Envelope in the Final EIR/EIS for the DRECP. Covered Activities in SAAs could be permitted for NCCP purposes only through an NCCP plan amendment. In the absence of an NCCP plan amendment, any renewable energy development in an SAA would have to be permitted for state purposes under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) not the Natural Community Conservation Planning Act (NCCPA). If these areas are not allocated as DFAs or included in the reserve design envelope in the ROD, where they occur on federal public lands, these areas would default to DRECP Variance Lands and would be subject to those requirements (see Section II.220.127.116.11 for details of this process). Please refer to Appendix M (General Conservation Plan) for a discussion of how SAAs are being treated under the GCP.
That paragraph likely wouldn’t pass muster with the Council on Environmental Quality, the agency that oversees federal compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. According to the council’s “Regulations for Implementing NEPA,” Environmental Impact Statements “shall be written in plain language and may use appropriate graphics so that decision makers and the public can readily understand them.” California’s State Guidelines for Environmental Impact Reports under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, have a similar requirement. The draft DRECP is both a draft Environmental Impact Statement under NEPA and a draft Environmental Impact Report under CEQA, so the above paragraph would seem to run afoul of both state and federal standards for clarity.
That said, most of the relevant information you’d need to make heads or tails of that bit of text is available somewhere in the Draft DRECP. It’s a huge document covering an extremely large collection of complex and interrelated topics. There’s almost certainly no way to make it simple, casual reading without misrepresenting the facts on the ground. Tech writing on this scale is far from easy.
And yet look at that blockquoted definition of the acronym SAA. That takes up just half a page in the PDF. If you’re a bright person with only a layperson’s familiarity with environmental policy, it might take you ten minutes or more to decipher that definition, which you’d then need to use to decipher more text. Ten minutes to read half a page in a 6,030-page document. Even allowing for Pages Intentionally Left Blank, and maps and such, that half page is around one ten-thousandth of the document, give or take.
Ten minutes times ten thousand half-pages works out to just under 70 days of non-stop reading, or 210 days if you spend only eight hours reading a day, breaking to swallow ibuprofen, eat, and have incomprehensibly jargon-rich dreams.
You might reasonably suggest that to comment on such a large, complex, and forbidding document, a member of the public need not dive in and become conversant with all the details. And legally, that’s true: you could comment on the DRECP based only on what you know from press reports or reading people’s Facebook feeds, without ever having so much as downloaded the Plan’s Executive Summary.
But under the above-mentioned National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, agencies are not obligated to consider public comments unless they’re what the law calls “substantive.” The definition of a substantive comment is imprecise, but generally a comment isn’t considered substantive unless it responds in detail to specific elements of the plan or project being considered. A substantive comment might challenge the DRECP’s methodology, or its scientific data, or a point of procedure under NEPA.
But if a comment merely expresses an opinion or makes criticisms of the DRECP that aren’t backed up with chapter and verse from the document itself, then the agencies collecting comments don’t have to take them seriously. And again, California’s version of NEPA, called CEQA, has standards similar to NEPA for whether or not a comment is substantive. Under CEQA, public comments along the lines of “The Earth is important so please save the wildlife for future generations” are routinely disregarded.
Put it this way. If you read the DRECP and come up with a serious hidden flaw in the document’s calculations, that’s substantive. If you write an impassioned and well-informed comment about the importance of protecting wildlife, or about your support for increased wind development to combat climate change, and if your comment doesn’t refer to specific parts of the DRECP, that comment isn’t substantive and you’ve essentially wasted your time as far as affecting the process is concerned.
Which means that the only comments on the Draft DRECP that will be taken seriously are those written by people who’ve read and understood at least a large portion of the document.
And that means that “public” comment on the DRECP will essentially be limited to those members of the public who are paid full time to read and comment on the DRECP. Those people include those who work for relevant state and federal agencies and for the six counties in the DRECP plan area, staff members of some of the better-funded environmental groups, and a long list of representatives of renewable energy companies and the trade groups that represent them.
In the jargon of the environmental assessment process, these people are called “stakeholders.”
Substantive public comment on the DRECP won’t be coming from the public. It will be coming from stakeholders. That doesn’t mean that comment will be inaccurate, necessarily: some of the green groups that act as stakeholders in the NEPA process actually do a pretty good job of representing the interests of the public and the non-human world.
But regardless of the fact that some stakeholders do a good job of holding their stakes, this removal of public comment from the public to a few (often self-appointed) representatives of the public is still troubling.
The DRECP isn’t the only document going through the NEPA process in which public comment has been restricted, inadvertently or otherwise, to that usual group of stakeholders. The gradual exclusion of members of the public at large from the environmental assessment process has been developing for a long time, and it’s manifested in the California desert and renewables arena before. We’ve been reporting on the problem for a bit more than three years at this point.
But the DRECP is huge. It proposes to manage a change in the Californian landscape that rivals some of the largest environmental changes in California in the 19th and 20th centuries, like hydraulic mining, or the plowing of the Central Valley’s wetlands and meadows, or the damming of most of the state’s major rivers.
The DRECP is so complex that the agencies drafting it ended up blowing their deadline by a bit more than two years.
And those of us in the public who aren’t paid to read and assess the plan’s 6,030 pages full time now have less than 90 days to get our substantive comments in.
There are substantive comments aplenty to be made on the DRECP, and we’ll take a closer look at some of those problems in a follow-up piece this week. But even those substantive issues aside, the DRECP process excludes those of us in California’s rank-and-file, non-stakeholder public from offering any meaningful contribution to the process. The document is just too large, too unwieldy, and too inaccessible for members of the public to be able to comment meaningfully by the deadline on January 9, 2015.
The public comment period on the Draft DRECP needs to be extended – and drastically, by several months at least – if it’s to be anything other than a formality. Otherwise, this isn’t democracy: it’s elites weighing in and calling it public comment.
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