The Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT) agencies announced this week that they would adopt a phased approach to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) in response to widespread concern about the proposed endangered species permitting mechanism and conflict with county land use plans. Under this approach, the more contentious aspects of the DRECP will be further refined after additional consultation with the counties and rolled out at a later date.
The first phase will amend the land use planning for Federal lands in the California desert, establishing both conservation and development focus areas. The second phase will establish development areas on private lands as well as the streamlined permitting process for renewable energy projects under State and Federal Endangered Species Acts. Reactions to the phased approach range from concern to relief.
Will Desert Conservation Move Forward?
How well the first phase is received will depend largely on whether or not the BLM sticks to its original preferred alternative or attempts to cram more Development Focus Areas (DFAs) onto public lands. CEC Commissioner Karen Douglas during a teleconference this week noted that many of the 12,000 public comments on the DRECP expressed strong support for conservation designations on public lands. It is safe to say that many of those comments probably asked for even more public lands to be included in the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) or designated as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).
Although the draft BLM land use plan was not perfect, many recognize the need to confer the conservation designations that the desert needs. As California expands its Renewable Portfolio Standard, we can expect the energy rush on public lands to continue; any delay in conservation measures will only prolong the dangerous game of roulette that we have played with our prized desert landscapes and wildlife.
However, public land enthusiasts and conservation groups have expressed concern that the BLM may try to compensate for the delayed roll out of DFAs on private lands by adding more DFAs on public lands. During the teleconference announcement this week BLM California Director Jim Kenna did not specify whether, or how much the “preferred alternative” would change when it is rolled out in a final environmental impact statement. This is not surprising considering that Federal agencies have not finished reviewing public comments and typically maintain silence regarding internal deliberations. However, Mr. Kenna did acknowledge that the BLM land use plan will be based on the original range of alternatives included in the draft DRECP.
A significant addition of DFAs on public lands almost certainly would rile the majority of people that spent time reviewing and commenting on the DRECP because of the overwhelming support for conservation designations, and the fact that most people probably did not have the time to comment on the DRECP beyond the preferred alternative. Although the draft DRECP identified several other alternative land use plans with varying configurations of DFAs and conservation designations, most people I spoke with had focused their comments on the the constellation of DFAs identified in the preferred alternative. Selecting a different alternative would constitute a last minute bait-and-switch, depriving people of providing meaningful input on additional DFAs.
An Opportunity to Reduce DFAs
Delaying the second phase of the DRECP provides more time for agencies to reconsider the role that distributed generation can play in meeting our renewable energy goals. Plenty of individuals and groups urged the REAT agencies to re-evaluate the role that energy efficiency and rooftop solar can play, thereby reducing the need for DFAs. During this week’s announcement, the REAT agencies did not give any indication that they planned to do so, however. In fact, the announcement of the phased approach reiterated the DRECP’s underlying assumption that DFAs should accommodate 20,000 megawatts of large-scale renewable energy generation in the California desert.
However, closer coordination with the counties should still allow for a reduction in the DFAs. The draft DRECP over-allocated DFA lands in part to counter perceived uncertainty regarding whether renewable energy companies can secure access to private lands for development. Presumably, coordination with counties will clear up some of this uncertainty, enabling planners to significantly reduce proposed DFAs.
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