The Bureau of Land Management on Thursday denied a Spanish company's application to build a controversial renewable energy facility in the Mojave Desert's remote Silurian Valley, deciding the sprawling project "would not be in the public interest."
The closely watched decision is considered a bellwether for how the federal agency will handle future requests to develop renewable energy projects outside established development areas.
The company had planned a side-by-side wind and solar facility. Thursday's decision applies only to the solar portion of the project. The wind energy aspect is still in the planning stages.
Jim Kenna, the BLM's California director, made the decision, finding that Iberdrola Renewables' proposal would have industrialized 24 square miles of "a largely undisturbed valley that supports wildlife, an important piece of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, and recreational and scenic values."
Kenna said he had been discussing the matter for weeks with field personnel and found the evidence "pretty persuasive."
He cited concerns that the project would degrade the quality of the wilderness surrounding the site, located between two national parks. He also noted potential hazards to the desert tortoise and other impacts that could not be mitigated.
"It was fairly clear to me," he said.
Iberdrola Renewables had sought permission to build its project using a "variance" process. Had it been approved, it would have been the first major exception to federal land managers' "guided development" approach across more than 22 million acres of California desert. Under the policy, companies are encouraged to develop in areas that have been preapproved for projects, where there would be less environmental or wildlife conflict.
Kenna said the variance process was intended to be rigorous. In denying the application, no other message was intended other than the specific project was unsuitable for the specific site, he said.
Iberdrola began the application process three years ago and had envisioned completing construction by December.
In a statement, Iberdrola said it was weighing whether to appeal the decision to the U. S. Department of Interior.
"It is unfortunate that the variance process is enabling unsubstantiated discretion in advance of a proper National Environmental Policy Act review that should be based on clear and understandable predictable requirements," the statement said.
But the BLM decided that the project would have "too great of an impact on the resources."
Among the specific concerns the BLM noted were that the facility would disrupt migration corridors critical to bighorn sheep and other wildlife.
"We are quite pleased that the BLM made this decision," said Kim Delfino, the California program director for Defenders of Wildlife. "It's encouraging that they are taking those criteria seriously."
The wind and solar plants that Iberdrola proposed would have been encircled by protected lands. The entire project site that the company proposed sits atop the Old Spanish Trail, a historic trail managed by the National Park Service, which opposed the project.
In its application, Iberdrola said the plants would create 300 construction jobs and generate about 400 megawatts of power.
The BLM is under pressure to meet the administration's goal of generating 20,000 megawatts of power from federal land by 2020. There have been 460 applications for renewable-energy-related projects in California since 2007, Kenna said. The BLM has approved 18 applications.