With towering white wind turbines turning slowly in the background, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Tuesday unveiled a plan to manage both conservation and renewable energy production on more than 22 million acres in California — nearly one-quarter of the state — as part of a federal and state effort to promote clean energy production.
The Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan, which Jewell called unprecedented, has been five years in the making. It carves out most of the Southern California desert and inland valleys for large-scale solar, wind and geothermal development and identifies reserve areas where protecting the land and animals that inhabit it will trump energy development.
Few environmental groups had read the 8,000-page document, which is still in draft form, before its release, and many praised it as a good start. Others, though, said they worried that the plan provided too much leeway for developers to continue projects in environmentally sensitive areas.
"We are ready for an end to the way projects have been approved for siting," said Barbara Boyle of the Sierra Club. "If the goal is reducing conflict, they are going to see a lot of agitation in the desert."
The plan aims to bring order to a region that has become a green-power battleground, pitting developers against environmental advocates in a dispute over the future of the Mojave Desert. The goal is to create consistency not only for environmental regulations — protecting species such as the desert tortoise, along with tribal lands and public recreation areas — but also for transmitting green energy.
Jewell and other officials praised California as a leader in renewable energy. Since President Obama announced in his first term a federal commitment to expedite green energy development, there has been a rush to build renewable energy power plants here. What were typically long, complicated environmental reviews for such projects were rushed through. It triggered a flood of interest from the industry, but the Interior's Bureau of Land Management did not provide guidance for managing utility-scale projects on federal land. The department has approved 52 renewable energy projects since 2009, eclipsing decades of slow growth.
The draft plan outlines an approach that directs development to less sensitive areas of the state, in part by offering incentives for developers to choose sites that are preapproved by the agency, allowing expedited permitting and little or no new environmental analysis, which would have already been performed by federal scientists.
The plan also includes a controversial variance system that has been in place. It allows developers that want to build outside approved areas to do so by applying for a variance, but doing so would be slower and more costly.
"They are unwilling to make a courageous decision to say no to horrible projects," said David Lamfrom with the National Parks Conservation Assn.
There is only one project currently in a variance area. The proposed Silurian Valley solar and wind facility near Death Valley National Park is in one of the protected areas of the plan. The project is highly contentious in the local community, where opponents say it jeopardizes their unmolested views and the region's wildlife. The National Park Service and state and federal fish and wildlife agencies have expressed grave concerns about the proposal.
Because it is already in the permitting process, though, the Silurian project and many others will not be governed by the new plan's framework.
In the name of combating climate change, many groups have defended renewable projects that they would typically oppose because of their negative environmental effects. They may take a tougher position in the future. The plan, they say, gives them a vehicle to launch legal challenges to such projects. Because it will be in place for the next 25 years, they hope to ensure that it conserves the most vulnerable places.
"This is the template, this sets the tone," said Kim Delfino of Defenders of Wildlife. "We have to get this straight now, so that it's clear going forward."
Jewell acknowledged that the plan would have detractors, but said everyone would have the chance to weigh in before it is finalized next year.
"The idea is to strike a balance," she said.