The Interior Department is exploring making wholesale changes to a massive California desert renewable energy zone that could lead to opening environmentally sensitive areas designated for conservation to possible commercial-scale wind, solar and geothermal power projects.
The goal is to allow more of the 10.8 million acres of federal lands within the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) zone to host large-scale renewables development, in accordance with President Trump’s call to remove regulatory "burdens" that hamper increased domestic energy production.
Interior and the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the federal lands within the DRECP, said in a press statement today that the move would help California meet a state law requiring publicly owned utilities and retail sellers to obtain 50 percent of their energy from renewable energy sources by 2030.
But a top official with the California Energy Commission cautioned that wholesale revisions to the plan would undermine the DRECP and that the state doesn’t need increased production on those federal lands to meet the state renewables law.
"I think that certainly this action today has cast a cloud of uncertainly over the plan and the California desert," CEC Commissioner Karen Douglas told E&E News in an interview today. "I don’t think that’s beneficial to anybody."
Regardless, the changes Interior is considering involve potentially removing conservation and recreation protections for millions of acres within the DRECP finalized by the Obama administration in 2016, according to an advance notice in today’s Federal Register.
The proposal will be formally published in tomorrow’s Register, kicking off a 45-day public comment period "on increasing opportunities for increased renewable energy development, recreational and off-highway vehicle (OHV) access, mining access, and grazing," the advance notice says.
Interior said in the press statement today it is exploring changes to the plan at the request of some of the seven counties within the planning area, including Riverside County.
These local governments, the statement said, have "expressed concerns to the Department of the Interior that the DRECP did not designate enough public lands for future renewable energy development."
In addition, some have complained that "the regulatory burdens created by the DRECP would make projects too costly to build, put undue pressure on private lands, and inhibit economic growth and job creation. These entities recommended a more efficient, streamlined and balanced approach to renewable energy development on both public and private lands," according to the statement.
Those concerns, Interior said, dovetail with Trump’s March executive order that directed federal agencies to review all regulations and actions that could "potentially burden" domestic energy use and production.
"We need to reduce burdens on all domestic energy development, including solar, wind and other renewables," Katharine MacGregor, Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals, said in a statement.
The advance notice in today’s Federal Register also referenced Trump’s executive order earlier this month that directed federal agencies "to reduce barriers to capital investment, remove obstacles to broadband services, and more efficiently employ Government resources" in an effort to "foster rural broadband infrastructure projects."
Thus, Interior’s review will include looking at how land-use designations and "land disturbance limits (or ‘caps’), and visual management classifications" in the DRECP will impact that executive order, the notice says.
"This process will help us find ways to make more federal land available for renewable energy projects as well as wireless broadband infrastructure," MacGregor said.
But significant changes could put in doubt the future of the DRECP, which Interior finalized in a record of decision in September 2016.
The DRECP — a partnership with the state of California covering 22.5 million acres of state, federal and private lands that took years to develop — was seen as a major component of the Obama administration’s efforts to carefully plan out where commercial-scale development was most appropriate and would cause the least conflicts with natural and cultural resources.
The changes BLM is considering would affect only the federal lands in the planning area.
Today’s advance notice says that of the 10.8 million federal acres in the DRECP, only a little more than 800,000 acres — 7 percent — is "potentially available for renewable energy development."
BLM conducted detailed studies that identified about 388,000 acres of "development focus areas" deemed suitable for commercial-scale renewables projects, as well as areas to be protected or managed for their recreational values that spanned nearly 17,000 square miles.
The advance notice notes that the development focus areas comprise about 4 percent of the federal lands in the planning area.
But the plan "allocated a total of 6.5 million acres (60 percent) as conservation areas, to include California Desert National Conservation Lands, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, wildlife allocations, and National Scenic and Historic Trail corridors — which limit or are closed to renewable energy," the notice says.
What’s more, the plan "also designated a little over 3.5 million acres (33 percent) as Special Recreation Management Areas and Extensive Recreation Management Areas," which the notice says are also generally closed to renewable energy.
Renewed mining activity?
The notice comes as BLM is considering canceling the withdrawal of 1.3 million acres of federal lands from new mining claims within the formally designated renewable energy development zone (Greenwire, Oct. 5, 2017).
BLM has not formally canceled the two-year mining withdrawal finalized in December 2016 that removed the 1.3 million acres from new mining claims in the DRECP.
But a number of BLM and Interior sources told E&E News last fall that the mining withdrawal proposal is part of a broader effort by Interior to eventually dismantle federal participation in the DRECP.
Douglas, the CEC commissioner, said in October that the state agency "has not received any indication from the Department of the Interior that the mining withdrawal issue is linked to any broader change in approach regarding the DRECP."
This latest action, however, has changed her view, she said.
Promoting renewables development in areas with conservation designations undermines the goal of directing projects in areas with low natural resource conflicts but high energy potential, she said.
For example, Douglas said one advantage of the DRECP is that the entire region was carefully studied to identify areas where development was suitable. So if developers want to build a solar power plant on state or private lands in the planning area, they could justify the impacts by pointing to the millions of acres conserved in the plan.
"The ability to do that has been immediately, with the stroke of a pen, diminished," Douglas said.
She added: "The fact of the matter is, you will find zero acres in that desert that don’t have some important values attached to them. The more renewable energy we get in the desert, the more challenging it is to look at projects in isolation, one at a time. What is the impact of this project on wildfire migration corridors, wildlife habitat, but also what about the impacts of this project in conjunction with the projects that have already been approved or that are reasonably foreseen in the future? That’s where having this plan is so important."
Environmental groups rejected the need to amend the DRECP.
"It is completely unnecessary to reopen the DRECP plan just after it was completed," said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife.
"The DRECP is a strong science-based plan that was the product of eight years of work, close collaboration with the state of California and local governments, with extensive public outreach and comment (with 16,000 comments), and provides more than enough lands for California to meet its renewable energy goals," she added.
Garry George, the renewable energy director for Audubon California, echoed Delfino, noting that the development focus areas in the DRECP "have already been identified where renewable energy could have expedited permitting with a planning goal of 20,000 [megawatts] — more than we need through 2040."
Kate Kelly, the public lands director for the Center for American Progress, dismissed the notion that the Trump administration is interested in expanding renewable energy production.
"This administration will now use scarce BLM resources to dismantle a plan finalized only after eight years of extensive public participation and coordination among federal, state and local partners," said Kelly, who was a senior adviser to President Obama’s Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. "The plan offered certainty and predictability to industry and clean energy developers, and now that rug is being pulled out from under them."