Federal and state officials have spent six years examining how best to allocate land in the Mojave Desert to satisfy two disparate environmental imperatives: renewable energy to reduce Californians' thirst for gas and oil, and conservation to preserve unique places and protect wildlife in the desert's fragile habitat. By identifying the least environmentally sensitive land in advance, the state hoped to expedite the permitting process for energy developments.
A little less than half of the land in the Mojave is federally managed, mostly by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Most of the rest is privately owned, and that's where the lion's share of wind, geothermal and solar energy development would be allowed. There's a logic to the lopsidedness: Private land is less likely to be in pristine shape, making it less valuable for conservation.
But while the officials were hammering out their 8,000-page Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, they failed to consider how the seven counties of the Mojave would view all of this. The answer? Pretty dimly. The plan conflicted with some county governments' goals for development and conservation. The governments were also worried about losing precious revenue if and when new renewable development projects took advantage of existing tax breaks.
As a result, the grand design for the desert has been delayed. The BLM has split off the federally run land and will proceed with the plan there to allow renewable energy development on up to 370,000 acres, while conserving millions of other acres. The future of the private land will be decided over time on a county-by-county basis.
The counties should have been fully involved in the planning from the get-go. The failure to include them has needlessly delayed matters. The original document called for 80% of the total renewable energy development to go on up to 2 million acres of private land. But if the counties have other ideas, it's hard to predict whether enough private land will ultimately be considered suitable for renewable energy projects, especially for the solar arrays that require vast expanses.
That, in turn, might put pressure on the BLM to open more of its land to energy development. Although a modest compromise along those lines might ultimately prove necessary, for now the BLM should hold firm. Meanwhile, if the state wants to get some quick approvals, its best move would be to offer incentives to the desert counties to ensure that they won't lose revenue and to encourage them to make ample space available for the renewable energy projects that could power large areas of the state.