SAN FRANCISCO -- Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is no stranger to hardball politics.
The environmental attorney has confronted polluters of the Hudson River, been arrested in Puerto Rico for trying to block U.S. Navy training operations and scrapped with oil companies looking to drill in remote parts of Alaska.
Along the way, he has worked for environmental groups large and small, lending his famous name to a burgeoning movement fighting to bring attention to macro-issues like climate change while protecting local wildlife habitat. In 1999, he was named a Time magazine "Hero of the Planet" for his work with the advocacy group Riverkeeper.
But in California's emerging battle over renewable energy development, Kennedy has gained new enemies: fellow environmentalists.
Kennedy, the son and namesake of the late Attorney General and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), is at the center of a nasty dispute among environmental groups, energy developers and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) over the future of federal lands in the sun-soaked Mojave Desert.
The Mojave's 22,000 square miles straddle California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. Given its elevation, heat, aridity and proximity to population centers on the California coast, the region is viewed by many as the ideal venue in North America for building a new generation of large solar-thermal power plants, especially in a state where utilities are required to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2010 and likely 33 percent by 2020.
Among the leaders in a group of aggressive solar prospectors is an Oakland-based company called BrightSource Energy Inc., which has been making a splash lately for its plans to build 2.6 gigawatts of power for California's investor-owned utilities, much of it to be located -- on paper, at least -- in the Mojave Desert.
But some California-based activists are worried that solar developers like BrightSource are getting a free pass in a headlong rush to build clean energy and capitalize on federal stimulus dollars now available for such projects. These activists have enlisted Feinstein to push for the declaration of a national monument in the desert and intend to unveil legislation with the senator in September that would apparently protect 1 million acres in the eastern Mojave to limit development.
Enter Kennedy, who calls the national monument, as it is likely to be drawn, a bad idea. To Kennedy, the instinct to protect local ecosystems has collided with the goals of a progressive national energy policy.
"I respect the belief that it's all local," Kennedy said in an interview. "But they're putting the democratic process and sound scientific judgment on hold to jeopardize the energy future of our country."
But here's the rub: Kennedy has a stake in BrightSource through VantagePoint Venture Partners, a venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley that was instrumental in raising $160 million in financing for the solar startup. Other investors include Chevron Corp., Google.org and JPMorgan Chase & Co.
That Kennedy is a senior adviser at VantagePoint, and an open promoter of BrightSource in public speeches, is an irony not lost on David Myers, an activist who charges Kennedy with shilling for a company intent on using his political clout. To Myers, the lure of profit if BrightSource makes it big is why Kennedy, a cousin of California's first lady, Maria Shriver, wants to stop the national monument before it ever gets off the ground.
"I'm getting pretty tired of BrightSource using their Kennedy connection," said Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy. "BrightSource [is pursuing] the worst projects in the worst locations, but they have the best PR firm, because Robert Kennedy is involved."
Next, enter Feinstein, a longtime advocate of desert conservation and lead appropriator for the Interior Department in Congress. Her office is working on a bill to be released this month that some sources said will cut off 1 million public acres in the desert -- up from a previous estimate of 600,000 acres -- to protect a threatened species of desert tortoise and preserve its habitat.
Feinstein, according to several sources who spoke anonymously, is livid about the pace of development on public lands and has bluntly told the solar developers not to challenge her on the national monument designation. Calls to several solar companies seeking comment seemed to bear this out, as none would take a position on the measure.
Myers has been instrumental in developing the boundaries of the monument, sparking rumors that he is cozy with Feinstein and is dictating the terms of the legislation. The boundaries would stretch from Joshua Tree National Park to Mojave National Preserve, including nearly 100,000 acres of National Park Service lands and 210,000 acres spread across 20 wilderness areas controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.
That area includes lands previously owned by Catellus Development Corp., a real estate subsidiary of the former Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroad. Myers insisted that the purchase was made years ago in the name of conservation, a promise that he says Feinstein takes seriously.
And though he would not release details of the bill, Myers said none of the land would come from the federal energy zones marked by the Interior Department for development. Nor does he believe solar companies will have trouble finding land to build on elsewhere in the region.
"The land in the monument is minuscule," Myers said. "There are so many other places where solar is being proposed throughout the state."
Back in Washington, Feinstein's office disputed the portrayal of the senator as "livid" and insisted she has worked with all parties to balance conservation with solar power development. "The characterization is completely inaccurate," said Laura Wilkinson, a Feinstein spokeswoman. "The dialogue between BLM and Senator's Feinstein's office has been productive."
But Kennedy still disagrees with the national monument push. He points out that BrightSource and 18 other companies have petitioned BLM and the California Energy Commission (CEC) to build in areas that overlap the Catellus lands, which would likely be closed to development under the Feinstein bill. Those applications represent about 10,000 megawatts of power, or 30 large-scale solar power plants; and though much of that would never get built, Kennedy says closing down Broadwell is a significant blow to the companies that have invested there under the guidance of federal land managers.
"This area is probably one of the best solar areas in the world," Kennedy said. "All that the solar industry has said is, 'Look, let's respect the robust process in place,' a process that is among the most transparent in the world through the CEC and BLM."
That process is still proceeding. BLM has received 66 applications for solar, totaling 577,000 acres, most of which would be located in the desert, an agency spokesman said. BLM is also processing 93 wind applications, representing 815,000 acres.
Yet the monument bill may have already produced a chilling effect. John White, a renewable-energy policy expert at the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, says the proposal has cast a "shadow" over these projects just as they are vying for financing and federal stimulus dollars only available until 2010. To White, setting aside 1 million acres in the eastern Mojave would mean "less land for solar than for off-road vehicles ... in the very best land that has the highest solar radiation."
"I'm astonished that nobody's said that," said White, who refused to comment further on the political wrangling.
Myers countered that most of those 19 companies have agreed, in private discussions with Feinstein, to build elsewhere. Florida Power & Light Co., Cogentrix Energy LLC and Stirling Energy Systems Inc., among others, have informed Feinstein that they filed "shotgun applications" in the Broadwell area and are more than willing to drop those and find other areas, he said.
"They're fine going outside the monument," Myers said. "BrightSource is the laughingstock of the industry right now."
Kennedy vs. Myers
For his part, Kennedy was unfazed by Myers' allegations or his harsh take on BrightSource, calling the political heat familiar territory, given his family's unique place in U.S. history. In the same breath, he urged Feinstein to take a step back before proceeding with the monument.
"I don't think it does anybody any good to start making personal attacks," Kennedy said. "Let's argue this on the merits. I think if we argue this on the merits, I think BrightSource and 19 other companies are going to win the debate."
Kennedy added that he has a "limited stake" in VantagePoint and denied asking for special treatment through Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) or anyone else in the state government.
"I don't care enough about BrightSource to compromise my integrity or the national interest," Kennedy said. "I've never talked to anyone about choosing BrightSource over anybody else. I've never asked for any favors from any politician or any regulator or any human being, ever."
In the next breath, Kennedy went negative himself and questioned Myers' relationship with a competitor to BrightSource, Pasadena-based eSolar Inc. Like BrightSource, eSolar is a solar-thermal outfit whose business model is built around reflecting radiation from mirrors into a large tower to convert steam into electricity. Unlike BrightSource, eSolar has no stake or planned projects in the Broadwell region.
Myers, Kennedy pointed out, has his own overlap issues with Silicon Valley money through eSolar. A major donor to the Wildlands Conservancy is the venture capitalist David Gelbaum, who has poured his own funds into eSolar and reportedly owns a fat stake in the company. eSolar would stand to benefit from the national monument, several sources said, because it is not involved in the Broadwell area.
Adding to the fire is Myers himself, who recently appeared at an eSolar press event in person to praise the company for siting projects on industrial lands near power lines in Lancaster, Calif. Yet Myers denies an inappropriate relationship and blamed Kennedy and BrightSource for stoking the rumors.
Gelbaum, Myers said, donated $45 million seven years ago to help acquire the Catellus lands. Myers said the donation and pledge to keep the lands off-limits took place well before BrightSource came into being.
Not stopping there, Myers slammed Kennedy for opposing a wind project off the coast of Nantucket, Mass., and questioned his recent environmental credentials. He said Kennedy is hiding behind the local versus national environmental debate when his real motivation is turning a profit through VantagePoint.
"Bobby Kennedy told us they did not want to see windmills in Cape Cod, that they had to put it all in the California desert," Myers said. "The real story here is, Bobby Kennedy is on the side of major industrial development, and he's against distributed generation."
Kennedy responded in kind. "He is very focused on a narrow piece of land, which I respect," he said of Myers. "All I've ever asked for is a rational process that is democratic, that is transparent, that is robust. That process is in place."
View from the bleachers
Spectators on the sidelines were hesitant to comment on the flare-up between Kennedy and Myers or the shape of the monument designation. Most said they could not take a position on the forthcoming Feinstein bill until it is publicly available, which a spokeswoman said has not been finalized.
Officials at BrightSource, who contacted Kennedy for an interview after receiving a call for this article, said the focus had been placed unfairly on their company when the future of the entire solar industry is at stake.
"The debate over renewable development and desert protection is not adversarial," said Keely Wachs, a spokesman at BrightSource. "We all have the same end goal of protecting the environment."
White, whose organization is meant to bridge industry and environmental groups, said "a little bit of land rush" followed the stimulus frenzy and perhaps led to tense feelings on both sides. He urged the players to learn from the experience, even as he cautioned that the political process has yet to play out.
"It's one thing to introduce a bill and another thing to get it through both houses," White said. "I think that this really is the beginning of a long conversation about where and how to put solar in the desert."
Elden Hughes, a former chairman of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada Desert Committee, blamed BLM for promoting lands bought from Catellus years ago and said officials there should have respected a promise that those lands be conserved. He said BLM has only recently changed its tune.
Calling BLM officials "two-faced SOBs," Hughes said, "For some months, they were telling us they were protecting the land, while at the same time they were taking developers out there."
BLM spokesman John Dearing would only say that the agency's job is to process applications. BLM has no right to block any entity from seeking a right of way on the Catellus lands, he said, adding that the agency will pursue "high-level reviews" for any proposed impacts to lands meant for conservation.
"They might want to steer away from that area," Dearing said of the developers. "But they're not prohibited from making an application."
Correction: This story originally reported that BrightSource Energy Inc. and 19 other companies have petitioned the Bureau of Land Management and the California Energy Commission to build solar power plants in Broadwell, Calif. Only two companies -- BrightSource and Florida Power & Light Co. -- have filed actual applications to build in Broadwell, according to BLM. The 19 companies, a BLM spokesman said, refers to the total number of wind and solar firms that have petitioned to build renewable energy facilities in a larger area in the Mojave Desert that overlaps with lands previously owned by Catellus Development Corp. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) is expected to propose legislation this fall that would protect all or part of the Catellus area from development.