Outgoing Administration Nixes Balanced Use, Reopens Desert for Development
By Frazier Haney
Published: Tuesday, February 2, 2021
After years of hinting, the Trump Administration in its final days released a draft Land Use Plan Amendment to the Desert Plan (also known as the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, or “DRECP”) that details a derisive and obsolete vision for the California desert. The amendment eliminates protections for millions of acres of public lands – including areas such as Juniper Flats, Pipes Canyon, Granite Mountains near Lucerne Valley, Panamint Valley, Eagle Mountain, and the Chuckwalla Bench. At the same time, the proposal potentially opens nearly half a million acres of those same lands to industrial renewable development, mining, and other intensive uses. Now is the time to call on the Biden Administration and State of California to better protect our California desert’s public lands and communities while charting a wise course forward for renewable energy development.
This proposed amendment to the Desert Plan is a cynical attempt to score political points with special interests by an Administration that never cared to understand the complexity and investment made in the California Desert Conservation Area. It threatens to take the desert back more than a decade to the era of the “Solar Gold Rush,” which will only re-open bitter wounds and waste untold resources.
The distinction between the two sides of the issue is revealing. The alleged intent of these changes according to Trump’s outgoing Department of Interior is to “make more federal land available for renewable energy projects in hopes of balancing uses as well as keeping the lights on and the air conditioning blowing.” But the California desert is already providing more than two-thirds of the planned and constructed utility-scale solar energy projects on public lands in the western United States with more in the planning phases. More than enough acreage was already identified in the Desert Plan for renewable energy development in the California Desert to help meet the State of California’s ambitious clean energy goals according to the California Energy Commission, a primary proponent of the Plan.
The innovativeness of the Desert Plan was that it created a framework for developers to successfully navigate a complex permitting process in “a total ecosystem that is extremely fragile, easily scarred, and slowly healed.” That is why the Plan took eight long years to develop and complete. The notion that the proposed amendment will expand renewable energy development is incomplete and incorrect. By dismantling the rules that streamlined permitting and changing protections for millions of acres of lands, the proposed amendment may appear to offer flexibility up front, but it takes away the certainty that a project will make it through the permitting process; the gauntlet of state and federal permitting laws – the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Historic Preservation Act to name a few; and the inevitable legal contests in state or federal court.
Those who were part of the vitriolic contests fought over renewable energy projects like Ivanpah Solar, Soda Mountains Solar, Sleeping Beauty Valley, and others understood the Desert Plan was a reasonable compromise to settle long-standing disputes from communities, developers, environmentalists, elected officials, utilities, and various agencies. Wisdom guided those who had agreed to use the Desert Plan as a way to move forward together. The consensus was ultimately strong enough that the Plan was never challenged in court.
But the move to make amendments in the closing hours of the Trump administration was driven by a very few special interests lobbying out of the view of the public eye – a move that betrays all of the hard work and compromise by the deeply invested desert stakeholders who developed the Plan.
California Desert National Conservation Lands
The proposed amendment of the Desert Plan is also another clear failure of the Bureau of Land Management under Trump to keep its word and meet the promise and obligation of 1976 Federal Land Policy Management Act to protect the California Desert.
The Desert Plan identified nearly 4 million acres of lands which have national significance as “California Desert National Conservation Lands.” In the agency’s own words in 2015, “Once identified, these lands can be removed from the NLCS only through an act of Congress; their designation cannot be changed through a land use plan amendment.”
The proposed Plan amendment seeks to cut this very designation by more than two million acres, reducing the California Desert National Conservation Lands by more than half its current acreage.
The Case for Rooftop Solar
In the last decade, renewable energy development has come a long way and a great deal has been learned. As recently described by Sammy Roth in his “Boiling Point” column, a report by Vibrant Clean Energy clearly shows that following a solar rooftop model nationwide in place of an exclusively utility scale energy model could save consumers $473 billion.
This is further evidence to prove what many have been saying for years: we don’t have to destroy pristine desert landscapes in an attempt to save the planet. If we had made an equal investment in rooftop solar over a decade ago that utility scale generation enjoyed at the time, hundreds of thousands of consumers would be enjoying these savings while taking the development burden off intact natural landscapes.
With ample acreage identified already and advancement in alternatives such as rooftop solar, there is simply no need to upend the Desert Plan to provide more acreage for development. Doing so would only serve as a setback towards clean energy goals.
Biden’s Next Move
The question now is what the Biden Administration will do with the Desert Plan Amendment. There is increasing development pressure for utility-scale renewable energy projects on public lands across the West driven by renewable energy developers and some national environmental groups. But all national environmental groups recognize that California is different: California has a model plan, the Desert Plan, that has been proven to actually work. The new Administration should heed the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
More than a decade ago, the Obama administration chose to provide tens of billions of dollars and other major incentives to advance utility scale renewable energy scattershot across intact public lands in the western United States. That set off years of conflict, often between natural allies, about how best to use our public lands. Ultimately, the Obama administration corrected course and produced the Desert Plan. The Biden Administration has the opportunity to take up the torch to advance climate change goals while protecting the California desert.
- The Desert Plan should not be opened to provide for additional industrialization across vast areas of the California desert. While Land Use Plans are regularly updated through amendments, the scope of the proposed changes represents a fundamental subversion to the purpose and objectives of land management in the California Desert Conservation Area. The proposed Amendment should be retracted by the new Administration.
- New investments made by the State of California and federal government should be directed towards distributed generation where the energy is used, rather than utility-scale generation on pristine lands. It is clear from the last decade the trend towards distributed and point-of-use generation is better for the consumers, the environment, energy security, and is the way of the future. Let’s not make the same mistake in thinking that led to the disastrous Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating Station.
- This administration must ensure permanent protections for the most sensitive and stunning lands of the California Desert National Conservation Lands like the Chemehuevi Valley, Panamint Valley, Chuckwalla Bench, and Amargosa Basin rather than leave the fate of these places to interpretation by future Administrations.
The comment period for the Desert Plan amendment ends April 15, 2021. To make a comment or download the amendment visit:
Additional resources for commenting are forthcoming from the California Desert Coalition at https://www.cadesertcoalition.org/.
Frazier Haney is a volunteer Board member for the California Desert Coalition and is the Executive Director of The Wildlands Conservancy. He enjoys a deep appreciation for the California desert after growing up in Joshua Tree, California.
- Federal Land Policy Management Act of 1976 Chapter 601. California Desert Conservation Area