In an unexpected announcement with potentially dramatic consequences for the California desert, the Trump administration said Thursday it will reconsider an Obama-era conservation plan that blocks energy development across millions of acres stretching from the Mexican border to the Owens Valley and encourages solar and wind farms in more limited areas.
The sweeping land-use plan, which took eight years to complete, was hailed by conservationists as a historic victory for the desert’s fragile ecosystems, which are home to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, Joshua trees and other iconic, at-risk species. But the plan was criticized by renewable energy developers who said it was too restrictive and would hurt California’s efforts to build clean energy projects and fight climate change.
The Trump administration says it agrees with the energy companies.
“We need to reduce burdens on all domestic energy development, including solar, wind and other renewables,” said Katharine MacGregor, a deputy assistant secretary at the Interior Department, in a statement announcing the administration’s review of the California desert plan. “This process will help us find ways to make more federal land available for renewable energy projects.”
Renewable energy companies aren’t the only ones who might benefit. The Trump administration said its review could make it easier to build broadband internet infrastructure in rural communities. The administration is also asking for comments on ways to increase access to public lands for off-road vehicles, mining and grazing.
Thursday’s announcement from the federal Bureau of Land Management was jarring for the conservationists who spent years working with federal and state agencies to craft the plan, which covers 10 million acres of federal land across seven counties, including the vast open desert east of the Coachella Valley. The plan is supposed to protect the California desert, one of the largest intact ecosystems in the lower 48 states, while encouraging developers to build solar and wind farms in the least sensitive areas.
Conservationists say the plan strikes the right balance between desert protection and renewable energy. And they’re not convinced that President Trump – who last week slapped taxes on imported solar panels, and who has sought to open protected lands to coal, oil and gas extraction – actually intends to support clean energy in California.
Laura Crane, director of the California Lands Network Program at the Nature Conservancy, said reopening the desert plan could actually hurt renewable energy development. In the past, conservationists and renewable energy companies have spent years fighting over where to build desert solar farms, with conservationists arguing that poorly sited projects could harm species and ecosystems. With the desert plan in place, Crane said, developers know where to build, helping avoid those drawn-out battles.
“By undoing a plan that used a ton of science and a ton of public input to identify places where there was a lot of agreement renewable energy could go, it creates confusion, a lot of uncertainty,” said Crane, who lives in the town of Joshua Tree, just north of the national park. “That could slow down California meeting its climate goals.”
Developers, though, say the situation on the ground is less rosy. The Desert Sun reported last year that in the eight months after the plan was finalized, just one solar company had filed paperwork expressing interest in building in a development zone.
Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-scale Solar Association, a California trade group, said the desert plan in its current form “all but forecloses new renewable energy.” Eddy said her group is “cautiously optimistic that reopening the (plan) could lead to the kind of renewable development originally envisioned when the process started.”
“Perhaps now we will have an opportunity to develop a plan that truly brings together conservation with viable renewable development where it’s most appropriate,” Eddy said in an email.
Officially, the Bureau of Land Management said it’s seeking comments to help determine the scope of its review of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. But Lisa Belenky, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, said she’s worried the Trump administration is planning to “reopen the whole thing, and not have these conservation measures, and instead to go back to the free-for-all of off-road vehicles and mining.”
“We saw the (desert plan) as a really smart step forward to rational planning,” she said. “Instead, what we see now is throwing it open again to sprawl and piecemeal, leapfrog development across the landscape that will destroy these fragile desert habitats.”
The Trump administration’s review is also concerning to California officials, who played a major role in writing the desert plan but won’t have an official role in the review.
Karen Douglas, a member of the California Energy Commission, spent years working on the desert plan. She said some small changes might be reasonable, including tweaks to the dozens of conservation rules that riled the solar industry. Solar companies said those building requirements were onerous and would make construction too expensive.
But Douglas said a “tremendous amount of scientific work and data” went into the plan the first time. It would take a lot to convince her that broad changes are needed.
“The land-use designations and other aspects of the plan are based on very specific factual findings that are required by law and have been very thoroughly documented,” Douglas said. “Any wholesale reopening of the plan is not going to benefit anybody.”
The desert plan sets aside 6.5 million acres for conservation and 3.6 million acres for recreation, with some overlap. It also designates 388,000 acres for clean energy, mostly solar and wind projects. 148,000 of those acres are in eastern Riverside County.
In addition to designating land for solar and wind, the plan was supposed to streamline the permitting of renewable energy projects. Federal officials and conservation groups said it would do that, by creating certainty for developers. But industry critics disagreed.
The wind industry was even more frustrated than the solar industry, saying the plan would prevent development in most of California’s best remaining wind hotspots.
Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, said she was “very pleased” by Thursday’s announcement from the Trump administration. In an email, she said the desert plan “flatly prohibited wind energy projects (though not oil and gas development or cattle grazing) across most of the vast desert region without ever specifically evaluating the potential impacts of those projects.”
“California will need access to the state’s best remaining wind energy resources in order to meet its ambitious climate change goals while contributing to the state’s economic development,” Rader said.
Trump’s Bureau of Land Management made a similar argument, noting that California law requires 50 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030, part of the state’s efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. The federal agency also pointed to concerns from clean energy companies and local governments about the amount of land open to development.
“The Riverside County Board of Supervisors and the Blythe Council said the regulatory burdens created by the (desert plan) would make projects too costly to build, put undue pressure on private lands, and inhibit economic growth and job creation,” the agency in a statement.
Douglas, from the California Energy Commission, rejected the idea that California hasn’t made enough land available for solar and wind farms. She said the state is way ahead of its interim target of 33 percent renewable energy 2020, and that electric utilities have already signed many of the contracts they need to hit 50 percent by 2030.
Crane pointed to a Nature Conservancy analysis finding that California could meet its 50 percent clean energy target while avoiding ecologically important areas, like those protected in the desert plan. She said the organization is interested in analyzing higher clean energy targets, in light of a proposal in the state Legislature for California to get 100 percent of its electricity from climate-friendly sources by 2045.
“If there are tweaks that need to be made so development can go to the (energy) zones easily, we should make those tweaks,” Crane said. “But calling into question the science that shows where there’s likely to be environmental constraints – that could cause tremendous risk for the developers and those entities that are buying the electricity. That doesn’t help anyone. And it doesn’t help us meet our climate goals quickly.”
In a Federal Register notice set to be published on Friday, the Bureau of Land Management said it would open a 45-day comment period and hold public meetings.
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