The Interior Department gave final approval 17 months ago to a massive planning document that, among other things, designated nearly 400,000 acres of desert in Southern California for wind, solar and geothermal energy production. The plan capped eight years of work, nearly a dozen public meetings and consultations with a wide range of stakeholders to determine which parts of 10.8 million acres of federal land should be preserved for conservation, which for recreation, and which for development.
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, as it was called, was far from perfect, but it was embraced as a workable, balanced compromise. Until last week, when the Trump administration announced that it was considering a do-over that could expand the area designated for energy production, mining, grazing and recreation (including all-terrain vehicles). What has changed in the desert since the original plan was approved? Nothing.
The administration cynically framed its motives for reopening the deal as pro-environment by suggesting that more land is needed for wind and solar farms if California is to meet its goal of 50% renewable energy by 2030. But apparently that's not true. "This is not needed," Karen Douglas, a member of the state energy commission, told The Times. "We have sufficient land designated in this plan to support meeting our renewable energy goals." Ironically, reopening the process could slow down renewable energy development in the desert by injecting fresh uncertainty into the process.
Ultimately, this move has less to do with renewable energy development than with the Trump administration's desire to significantly reduce the amount of land set aside for conservation, and to undo every vestige of the Obama legacy that it can get its oil-stained hands on. The administration has made no plausible argument that the desert plan is faulty or no longer suitable, other than the risible excuse about California's energy plans and complaints by Riverside County and the city of Blythe that the plan might shift the burden for wind and solar farms from public land to private.
President Trump has said often that more energy of all types should be produced from federal lands, though his energy source of choice is usually fossil fuels. Although there is little gas or oil to be pumped in the desert — good news, otherwise he might turn the Mojave into west Texas — there are deposits of borax and other minerals that could be opened to mining if the plan is revised.
Of the 10.8 million acres at issue, the conservation plan set aside 3.9 million acres of land for some level of protection, including the Silurian Valley and the Chuckwalla Bench. Habitats were protected for a wide range of native plants and animals, including desert bighorn sheep and tortoises, pupfish and burrowing owls. It's clear that the administration has a jaundiced view of environmental causes and protections, and that it has fallen in with Western Republican politicians who have been trying for years to wrest control of public lands from the federal government and convert it for local economic development. They argue that local political figures know best how to be stewards of local lands.
But that's not a credible argument when their interest centers on drilling, mining and cutting roads in pursuit of a relative handful of jobs. In fact, developing public lands could cost jobs. One study of the impact of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah found that it gave rise to a tourism industry that helped fuel a 25% increase in local jobs and a 17% increase in per capita income. Notably, the Trump administration announced last year that it would reduce the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument by nearly half (at least five legal challenges have been filed to stop him).
This administration has pursued some of the worst environmental policies in modern memory. It has let enforcement slip, worked to undercut landmark laws to clean up air and water pollution, denied the science behind climate change in service of increased emissions of greenhouse gases, and sought to slash budgets for the Environmental Protection Agency and other offices charged with protecting the environment. This effort to undo the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is of a piece with all that. Californians need to stand firm against this ploy to remove hard-fought protections and to endanger some of the state's defining landscapes.