Image: BLM

The Trump administration’s move to start rewriting a plan for vast tracts of Southern California desert lands could have long-term repercussions for renewable energy production and wildlife conservation.

The Department of Interior announced last week that it is taking public comments through March 19 “to help set the parameters” for a review of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), finalized in 2016 after seven years of collaborative planning. The agency is asking for comments on how the plan affects development of solar, wind, or other renewable energy resources, but environmentalists fear its another attempt to prioritize fossil fuels and mining over clean power and conservation.

Overall, the DRECP covers about 22.5 million acres (about the size of South Carolina) in Southern California, including state, federal, and private lands. The Trump administration’s announcement pertains to about half of that total (10.8 million acres) managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) mostly in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

The DRECP was hailed upon its completion as a model collaborative planning effort because it balances renewable energy development, wildlife protection, recreation and other uses. Reopening the process will create uncertainty and will probably hurt opportunities for renewable energy, Alex Daue, Assistant Director of Energy and Climate at The Wilderness Society, told Earther.

“We see this whole attempt as a cynical attempt to undermine both renewable energy and land conservation,” he said. “Instead they are just creating chaos for our public lands.”

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Daue’s perspective was further crystallized this week when the BLM also announced that it would reopen 1.3 million acres in designated conservation areas for future mining claims in the California Desert Conservation Area. In the prepared statement, California BLM director Jerome Perez said such a large-scale mining ban is not needed “to meet the purpose for which the conservation lands were designated,” because there is little chance there will be significant mining-related disturbances.

The agency declined to answer specific questions from Earther about the DRECP announcement, referring instead to a prepared statement and the Federal Register notice, which says the proposal to consider amending the plan is “a result of concerns voiced by multiple parties throughout the public comment periods of the DRECP planning process.”

Renewable energy development in the California Desert. Image: BLM

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A Remarkable Accomplishment

Considering that the plan involves so much territory and so many stakeholders, it was a remarkable accomplishment to get an agreement, Ileene Anderson, with the Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved with the planning process from beginning to end, told Earther.

“We saw this as a way to avoid the sometimes significant environmental impacts for some of the projects being proposed,” she said. “Like with any any plan, there is compromise. Nobody walked away with everything they wanted. But nobody litigated. It was better than the status quo, and everybody could abide by it,” she said.

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That fragile consensus is now threatened, according to Kim Delfino, California Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife.

“It’s like the Trump administration decided to throw a grenade into California and walk away. It’s very disappointing. By reopening everything and pulling it apart again, there’s going to be chaos and uncertainty,” she told Earther. “They don’t like the conservation aspects. They don’t like the disturbance caps, and they really don’t like the mitigation requirements.”

“I don’t think anyone could have foreseen this,” she said. “ I don’t think these policies reflects what Americans think and the proof will be when we get into the next round of elections.”

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It’s also possible, as The New York Times reported last week, that the administration’s attempts to roll back environmental protections won’t survive legal challenges. In several recent cases, anti-environmental policies and decisions have already been rejected by courts, and last week, the administration withdrew a nomination for a key environmental post, Kathleen Hartnett White, after facing political resistance.

California is directly challenging Trump’s policies on several fronts, and the state has a lot invested in the DRECP, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the state chose to defend the plan with a lawsuit.

Solar thermal power in the California desert. Image: BLM

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Renewable Energy Reacts

Some conservation advocates suspect that the renewable energy industry urged the federal government to review the plan, but if so, the push did not come from the California Wind Energy Association, Nancy Rader, the organization’s executive director, told Earther.

“CalWEA had absolutely nothing to do with the reopening of the DRECP. But we were extremely frustrated by the process because there was never any focus on talking about how to preserve some of the best wind energy potential,” she said. “This area has some of the last good remaining wind resources in all of California. It’s not like we want to blanket the whole area with wind turbines, but we’d like to preserve the option to develop wind energy.”

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While the DRECP includes about 600 square miles of land where renewable energy development ostensibly is encouraged, Rader said that it also excludes some areas that have have already been surveyed in detail and found suitable and desirable for wind energy deployment, including an area of disturbed land around an old gold mine.

The Southern California desert also is a global hotspot for large-scale solar energy development, including multiple facilities already operating and producing hundreds of megawatts of electricity by concentrating the sun’s heat with arrays of mirrored panels.

But advocates for large-scale solar say the final version of the DCERP didn’t deliver on it promise—a shame, because there are only a few places on Earth where the potential is so great so close to major demand centers.

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But the Large Scale Solar Association did not ask the BLM to start the review, according to Shannon Eddy, the group’s executive director.

“We were as surprised as anybody. I was actually enjoying being away from the DRECP, but I imagine we’ll re-engage,” she told Earther. “But we can’t splinter, we have to retain some cohesion. We have climate goals on which we all agree and that’s our cement force.”

The prospect of having the DRECP reopened is a sobering reminder that the work of environmental conservation is never done, Frazier Haney, director of land conservation at the Mojave Desert Land Trust, told Earther.

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“In a lot of the ways, this plan is exactly what the administration says it wants, to give local governments a say in planning for public lands. It provides a lot of certainty for industry and desert communities. We think this proposal by the BLM is part of a continued attack on protected public lands, and part of a nationwide trend,” he said.

Bob Berwyn is a freelance journalist with a focus on the environment. @bberwyn