Environmental groups file legal challenge on solar energy zones

On February 12th, 2013, Western Lands Project (Seattle, Washington, U.S.), Desert Protective Council (San Diego, California, U.S.) and Western Watersheds Project announced that they have filed a legal challenge against U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's decision to keep millions of acres of public land available for utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) plants.

In the complaint, three public-interest environmental organizations cited the government's failure to consider alternatives that would focus solar development on degraded lands and in the already-built environment.

Western Lands Project: Solar development belongs to already-developed areas, degraded sites

"The administration is opting to needlessly turn multiple-use public lands into permanent industrial zones," stated Janine Blaeloch of Western Lands Project. "Solar development belongs on rooftops, parking lots, already-developed areas, and on degraded sites, not our public lands."

The administration's plan, as detailed in its Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (PEIS), established solar energy zones on a little less than 300,000 acres, in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, but the agency's "preferred alternative", selected by Salazar, is to keep 19 million acres of public land open to industrial solar applications.

"The public lands of our southwestern deserts provide habitat for many special status species of wildlife and rare plants. 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," Western Watersheds Project California Director Michael Connor stated.

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.

The groups, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), called for analysis of these alternatives during comment periods, but BLM ignored them. Blaeloch stated: "Had these alternatives been analyzed next to the others, the superiority of the DG and degraded-lands options would be clear."

"Our desert species and ecological communities are already severely stressed by urbanization, roads, transmission lines, mining, military uses, recreation, grazing, and other impacts. Interior's plan intensifies the potential for permanent loss of all the things people cherish about the desert — uncluttered vistas, dark night skies, and deep peace and quiet," stated Terry Weiner of the Desert Protective Council.

As of mid-January, 11 solar projects had been approved on 41,350 acres of public land, according to organizations. The projects range from 516 to 7,025 acres, with the average power plant exceeding 3,700 acres.

Pending proposals number 87, and would cover a total of 670,599 acres of public land. The 98 total approved and pending projects do not fall within the framework of the PEIS, which is designed to facilitate future projects under a more expedited review.

2013-02-19 | Courtesy: Desert Protective Council | © Heindl Server GmbH

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