Interior Axes Trump Wildlife Protection Rollbacks

Scott Streater, E&E News reporter

Published: Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Solar panels installed in California as part of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. Tom Brewster Photography/Bureau of Land Management.

The Interior Department announced today that it plans to kill a Trump administration proposal that would have increased renewable energy development within protected areas inside a massive renewable energy zone in Southern California.

The Bureau of Land Management last month proposed removing dozens of areas protected for sensitive wildlife habitat from the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) zone, just days before President Trump left office (E&E News PM, Jan. 13).

BLM proposed doing so, it claimed, in the name of increasing commercial-scale solar, wind and geothermal power development across the nearly 11 million acres of federal land inside the DRECP. It proposed removing 1.8 million acres of designated areas of critical environmental concern and another 2.2 million acres of California Desert National Conservation Lands designations, among other changes.

BLM published a draft environmental impact statement in the Federal Register on Jan. 14 that outlined the proposed changes. The draft EIS is open for a 90-day public comment period running through April 15.

But a senior Interior Department official said today in a formal statement that the agency will publish another notice in the Federal Register, as early as this week, nixing the public comment period and scrapping the draft EIS.

“The Trump administration’s proposal in its final days to re-open the plan is unnecessary and at odds with balanced land management,” said Laura Daniel Davis, Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, in a statement.

“The Department will not move forward with the proposed environmental review of potential amendments to the DRECP,” she added.

The decision to revoke the proposed Trump administration changes was expected.

The massive California desert renewable energy zone was one of the crowning renewable energy achievements of the Obama administration.

DRECP is a partnership between BLM and the state of California, finalized and approved in 2016 during the closing months of the Obama administration.

In total, it covers about 22 million acres of federal and state lands.

BLM evaluated and studied the 10.8 million acres of federal land and divided it into areas where large-scale renewable development should be focused, as well as other areas where conservation and recreation were the top priority.

It is often touted as a model for how to balance the need for commercial-scale renewable energy and other land uses while protecting the most sensitive landscapes and wildlife habitat.

The Trump administration argued that not enough of the DRECP was available for development.

The proposed changes, the previous administration argued, adhered to Trump’s ongoing efforts to remove regulatory “burdens” that his administration said hamper increased domestic energy production.

The original DRECP designated roughly 388,000 acres of “development focus areas” deemed suitable for commercial-scale renewables projects.

But Daniel Davis said the proposed changes undermined the character of the carefully crafted DRECP.

“The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan represents an unprecedented partnership between the federal government and the state of California to balance our country’s equally important goals of facilitating renewable energy while ensuring that lands in California’s deserts are set aside for conservation and recreation,” she said in her statement.

“The plan was developed after years of thoughtful outreach with stakeholders, other federal and state agencies, and government-to-government consultation with Tribal Nations,” she added. “We look forward to renewing our partnership with the state to build a clean energy economy that creates jobs, addresses climate change, and conserves public lands for current and future generations.”