Habitat concerns cloud the solar gold rush

Across the desert flatlands of southeastern California, dozens of companies have flooded federal offices with applications to place solar mirrors on more than a million acres of public land.

But just as some of those projects appear headed toward fruition, environmental hurdles threaten to jeopardize efforts to further tap the region's renewable energy potential.

The development of solar-power facilities in the desert has been a top priority of the Obama administration as it seeks to ease the nation's dependence on fossil fuels and curb global warming. In addition, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has urged that the state meet one-third of its electricity needs from renewable sources by 2020.

Companies are racing to finalize their permits and break ground by the end of next year, which would qualify them to obtain some of the $15 billion in federal stimulus funds designated for renewable energy projects. At stake is the creation of 48,000 jobs and more than 5,300 megawatts of new energy, enough to power almost 1.8 million homes, according to federal land managers.

But the presence of sensitive habitat, rare plants and imperiled creatures such as desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and flat-tailed horned lizards threatens to stall or derail some of the projects closest to securing permits.

"There are significant environmental issues involved in the California gold rush-like scenario unfolding in the desert," said Peter Galvin, conservation director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "We are not going to just roll over when critical wild lands and last habitats of endangered species are in the mix."

Beyond the environmental issues is a bureaucratic one: State and federal regulatory agencies are hobbled by mandatory work furloughs and a lack of experience in processing utility-scale renewable energy project applications.

Removing that obstacle has become a top priority, with Schwarzenegger and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signing an agreement last week to help state and federal authorities expedite renewable energy development in the desert.

"The California process, our state process, is slow, the federal process is slow," Schwarzenegger said. "And this is why it is important that we go and create this kind of partnership so we can move through that and get rid of the red tape."

Salazar characterized the effort to facilitate a rapid and responsible move to large-scale renewables on public lands as a preeminent conservation issue of the 21st century. "If we fail, the rest of the world will move ahead of us," he said. "There is no reason for the U.S. to come in second on this agenda. And we won't."

One of the biggest projects is slated for 6,500 acres of public and private land just north of Interstate 8 near El Centro. Arizona-based Stirling Energy Systems said its Solar Two facility would create 700 jobs.

In a surprise setback, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June to reconsider its decision not to list the flat-tailed horned lizard as an endangered species.

Stirling is investing heavily in strategies to minimize potential conflicts. Sean Gallagher, Stirling's vice president of marketing strategies and regulatory issues, said the company recently reduced the size of the project from 900 megawatts to 750 to avoid an area strewn with Native American artifacts.

The company also plans, with help from the Bureau of Land Management, to identify and buy 6,500 acres of flat-tailed horned lizard habitat elsewhere in Imperial County to help conserve the species. "That won't be an inconsiderable expense," Gallagher said.

In a worst-case scenario for the company and community boosters, the Fish and Wildlife Service could decide that the project threatens the lizard's existence and shut it down.

Peninsular bighorn sheep became an issue in March 2008 when company surveyors spotted two adult females and two lambs ambling down a dry wash in the heart of the Stirling site, miles from their usual mountain haunts.

Company officials and federal land managers have dismissed the incident as an aberration, speculating that the sheep were accidentally driven into the area by hunters or off-road vehicles. But some environmentalists are concerned that the federally endangered sheep may have followed a previously unknown migration corridor.

A coalition of environmental groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service this month for slashing critical habitat designations for the sheep.

That worries Andy Horne, chief of natural resources development for Imperial County.

"We have the highest unemployment rate of any county in the state, so this [project] is very important to us," Horne said. "We've pegged our future on it."

As for the threatened reptiles, he mused, "If I were a flat-tailed horned lizard, I'd welcome the chance to get under the shade of one of those solar mirrors and take a little nap."

Even further along in the permitting process is BrightSource Energy, which plans to start construction in March on a 6-square-mile solar facility in eastern San Bernardino County's Ivanpah Valley.

BrightSource says the site is ideal, in part because it has been used for cattle grazing and off-road vehicles. It also has a major gas line and two major transmission lines.

Ivanpah is "a showcase of world-class technology and environmentally friendly development, and serves as a catalyst for economic growth," said company spokesman Keely Wachs.

But environmental groups say it would destroy what they see as a relatively pristine habitat that is home to a colony of about 30 threatened California desert tortoises. It is also studded with endangered cactuses, including varieties of cholla, a ground-hugging species also known as "horse tripper."

Of particular concern are BrightSource's plans to move the California desert tortoises. Environmentalists say the tortoises often die as a result of attempts to relocate them.

The Sierra Club has recommended that the company instead develop its facility in wide open, ecologically disturbed areas a few miles to the east, next to Interstate 15.

"We believe there is room for solar energy development in the California desert," said Joan Taylor, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's California/Nevada desert energy committee. "But there is no reason to put it in the wrong place."

BrightSource is "very concerned about the welfare of the desert tortoise," Wachs said, adding that the company has worked extensively with regulators and environmental groups to come up with a strategy that protects the species.

State and federal regulatory agencies are reviewing BrightSource's tortoise relocation plan, but one state official was critical of the project's location.

"BrightSource did not choose an ideal site. They are going to have to do some serious mitigation," said Dan Pellissier, Schwarzenegger's deputy secretary for energy and development.

He said the state energy commission and Bureau of Land Management "are working on a plan" that would require the company to buy three acres of habitat elsewhere for each acre developed. "It looks like we'll get them through" the permitting stages, he said, "and we'll end up with a responsible process that will keep us from ever allowing this to happen again."

Meanwhile, pressure to approve solar plants continues to mount in Bureau of Land Management offices throughout Southern California.

"Bullying us to step up the pace won't help," said Greg Miller, head of a new team created to speed up the bureau's permitting of renewable energy projects. "We're going to do this right; this land belongs to the American people."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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