Three environmental groups sue BLM over Solar Energy Zones

The Desert Tortoise, an animal at risk at solar developmentsDespite gaining support from national conservation organizations, the Obama Administration’s Solar Energy Zones on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under the Department of the Interior (DOI) have come under fire from three conservation organizations: Western Lands Project, Desert Protective Council and Western Watersheds. The organizations filed the suit against BLM on the eve of Obama’s State of the Union address (Feb. 12) before outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s replacement, Sally Jewell—currently REI’s CEO—was confirmed. The groups contend that DOI failed to consider alternatives focussed on developing solar on rooftops, lots and degraded lands.

In all, the BLM designated 285,000 acres of federally managed land identified as Solar Energy Zones throughout California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The zones are areas on BLM and DOI-managed land that are fast-tracked for solar development. “In the complaint, the groups assert that the BLM violated NEPA by failing to examine two additional alternatives: a distributed generation (DG) alternative, and an alternative in which solar energy facilities would be sited on previously degraded or damaged lands,” according to a press release from the groups. (The complaint can be accessed here)

But larger, national conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, and Audubon, approved of the Solar Energy Zones when they were finalized in July 2012. The groups praised DOI for its work to identify disturbed lands, lands near existing infrastructure and those with lower natural habitat and other natural resource values.

However, the groups that filed the lawsuit didn’t agree enough was done to protect public lands. “The Administration is opting to needlessly turn multiple-use public lands into permanent industrial zones.” said Janine Blaeloch of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project. “Solar development belongs on rooftops, parking lots, already-developed areas, and on degraded sites, not our public lands.”

The organizations were also concerned that not enough is being done to protect habitat for desert species. “The public lands of our southwestern deserts provide habitat for many special status species of wildlife and rare plants,” said Michael Connor, California Director for Western Watersheds Project. “If these species are to survive in the face of climate change, we need to protect their habitat, not convert it into an industrial wasteland.”

Terry Weiner of the Desert Protective Council, echoed Connor’s sentiment. “Our desert species and ecological communities are already severely stressed by urbanization, roads, transmission lines, mining, military uses.”

It’s a contentious issue, but the Solar Energy Zones were designated after years of public comment and not all comments could be accommodated. However, an important point about the Solar Energy Zones is that they also protect the lands from more invasive forms of use like mining for oil, gas and metals. And distributed generation, while a great choice where available is not likely to provide as much electricity as cheaply as larger solar projects are. But the long-term impacts of such projects is still undetermined. 

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