The Department of Interior’s fast-tracked approval of several major solar projects in California and Nevada has raised questions over negative environmental impacts and the agency’s adherence to environmental regulations.
On March 11, 2009, the Department of Interior [DOI] issued a secretarial order to fast track the siting of renewable energy projects on public lands managed by the agency.
The move was part of the administration’s larger green energy initiative, which has pumped billions of dollars in stimulus money into renewable energy.
Seven solar companies received fast-tracked approval by DOI to lease federal lands in a no-bid process: Abengoa Solar, BrightSource Energy, First Solar, Nevada Geothermal Power, NextEra Energy Resources, Ormat Nevada, and SolarReserve.
Those seven companies all received loan guarantees worth billions from the Department of Energy under its renewable energy loan program, as well as renewable energy grants from the Treasury Department.
The federal government has dedicated 21 million acres to these renewable energy projects in the three years since the secretarial order. That is more land than it has set aside for oil and gas exploration over the last decade.
The speed with which the projects were approved, coupled with the fact that the companies had already received Energy Department loan guarantees with strict timelines attached, has raised questions as to whether Interior’s actions were predetermined.
Federal agencies are required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to consider all environmental outcomes of an action before proceeding with it. Federal decisions can be overturned if a court finds they were predetermined.
"The question is, are these basically pre-cooked outcomes?" a former Bureau of Labor Management (BLM) employee told the Free Beacon. "And when you really start thinking about it, does the fact that these companies had loan guarantees put them at the top of the pecking order?"
The BLM defended the process.
"Clearly these were not pre-decisional determinations on these projects," Ray Brady, Chief of Lands and Realty Division at BLM, said. "These were projects that were farthest along in their process work. The companies had submitted complete development plans and had already initiated NEPA compliance."
The Institute for Energy Research, a group that supports increased oil and gas production, said the divide between how the Obama administration treats oil and renewable energy is striking.
"It’s amazing because at the same time the administration’s been pushing renewable energy, it’s been going the opposite direction on conventional oil and gas, adding delays and speed bumps," Senior Vice President for Policy at IER Dan Kish said. "The biggest delay with doing business on federal land is litigation hooks. Everybody and their brother has the right to weigh in and appeal, which puts capital and investment at stake."
The Congressional Research Service recently released a report revealing 96 percent of the increase in domestic oil production since 2007 has occurred on non-federal lands.
Kish said the fast-tracked process shields the projects from regular scrutiny.
"The entry points for appellants and litigants have been wiped out, so they don’t have to put up with the things everyone else does with when dealing with the federal government," he said.
However, the Bureau of Land Management says it was making the process simpler for both the companies and the public. Typically, oil companies must go through environmental review for both the lease and the drilling project.
"It’s really kind of a streamlined process that brings those decisions into one document," Brady said. "That makes it easier for the public as well."
Critics say that the close to 20 years the Army spent trying to expand its base at Fort Irwin, located near a Brightsource solar project in the Mojave Desert, is an example of just how much easier the fast-tracked process was for the green energy companies.
Planning for the Fort Irwin expansion began in 1988, but the final supplemental environmental impact statement was not completed until 2005.
A former Fish and Wildlife Service official who worked on the Fort Irwin expansion said the roadblocks faced by the Army were extensive.
"I had at least two generals at the office of Interior begging us to get the biological opinion completed," the source said. "You should see the requirements placed on army."
The Mojave is home to the endangered desert tortoise. Parties leasing federal lands in the Mojave are allowed to "take," or kill, only a certain number of tortoises per year.
The army was allowed to kill only three tortoises per year on their 75,000-acre project.
Yet the four solar projects located in the same area were approved to kill roughly 15 of the animals a year on projects collectively affecting only about 12,000 acres.
Environmental and cultural problems have arisen at other projects as well.
NextEra Energy’s $1-billion, nearly 2,000-acre Genesis solar energy project, backed by $852 million in Energy Department loans, has run into concerns that it is killing the sensitive desert kit fox population, as well as possibly desecrating an ancient Native American burial site.
According to California Energy Commission records, the Genesis project was approved despite "significant environmental impacts" that were deemed to be outweighed by "overriding economic, legal, social, technological or other benefits."
Despite these concerns, major environmental groups were silent on the projects or actively lobbied for them. The national office of the Sierra Club sent out a memo to all local chapters announcing it would not pursue litigation against the Brightsource project.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a notoriously litigious environmental group, signed a confidential agreement not to oppose the Ivanpah project in exchange for increased protections for the desert tortoise, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The National Resources Defense Council characterized the decision as part of a broader, more pragmatic strategy by environmental groups to work with companies and the government.
"Our greatest challenge today is to make the hard choices that will provide the greatest environmental benefit for all and result in the fewest impacts to wildlife and wild lands," wrote Johanna Wald on the NRDC blog.
Policy expert Kish questioned the choices environmental groups and the administration made in backing the fast-tracked projects.
"If one was a cynic or understood how this town worked, it would become pretty quickly apparent the collective enforcement of laws from the administration is based on who their friends are," Kish said. "It comes down to: Do they or don’t they believe these laws are important and should be followed?"
The environmental impacts of the solar projects will be felt for long after the Obama administration.
"If these companies pull out and attempt to restore the land—if they can—it will take a long time," Dennis Schramm, a former superintendent at the Mojave National Preserve, told the Los Angeles Times. "It will be 100 years. It might be 200 years. That's how long it would take to restore the desert."
A former official who worked at the Bureau of Land Management for more than 30 years and described himself as a conservationist said: "To see the department bend over backwards and do everything they can to put up these solar farms, it doesn’t seem like the same yardstick is being used, but they really do believe this is the tech answer to fossil fuel. They’re true believers."