Despite the enormous flow of money into new solar projects (the free market, trying to work), this has been a rotten 12 months for solar energy. Last year California Sen. Dianne Feinstein led the effort to increase fuel efficiency standards to 35 mpg by 2020, and in the process she dropped provisions that would have extended tax breaks for solar and wind power development. Still, as the manager of millions of acres of desert land, companies flooded the BLM with applications to construct big solar power projects that could potentially provide enormous quantities of clean electricity for electricity-sucking SoCal, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and the rest of the region.
But today we learn that the Bush administration has placed a moratorium on all new large solar projects on Bureau of Land Management property, which, of course, means millions of acres of desert in the southwest which happen to, you know, get a lot of sunlight. They argue that they need to do an environmental assessment of the impact of large solar projects, which could take up to two years. I can’t be alone when I lean my head out the window and belt out a hearty, “AAARGH!”
OK, look, environmental assessments are a good idea. It’s good to know what damage is being done to property when you take up a new project. But this is Bureau of Land Management here, the single most extractive branch of the federal government.
Consider: Last year, Miriam went on a class camping trip to Anza-Borrego State Park, a protected piece of desert property here in southern California. But it also happens to border property managed by BLM. All night, Miriam had to listen to the roar of ATVs tearing up the desert landscape (they also were shooting their rifles in the air for no apparent reason, but that’s neither here nor there).
Hunting for more thoughts on the BLM, I contacted a friend of mine, Chris Len, the legal director for an Oregon-based environmental advocacy group called the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, and a colleague of his, Joseph Vaile, who is the campaign director.
They told me a tale of BLM and Kelsey-Whiskey Timber Sale. The 530 acres along the Rogue River and its tributaries in the Zane Grey Roadless Area consist mostly of old-growth forest managed by the BLM. In 2003, the BLM proposed logging it (Vaile says logging old-growth almost never happens in the 48 contiguous states). In this instance they did an environemntal review, and they invited, as the law requires, public comment. KSWild’s webpage says that of the 144 comments on the project, 140 opposed it, or at least proposed doing it on a smaller scale. The BLM reviewed the project and decided instead to massively expand it. A staffer at the KSWild called the BLM to ask why they made that choice, and the person said that it was because the comments were so negative, they wanted to be able to build future roads in other areas without going through another comment process.
This is the culture of the suddenly protective BLM.
“People, like environmentalists and other groups, have been fighting them tooth and nail to get them to do environmental reviews for years,” Vaile said. “Now suddenly they think they need to review solar energy projects? Did they think of that themselves, or did someone encourage them to do this?”
Well, this is the Bush administration, right? And in the last month, the Bush administration has turned up the volume on one of its favorite songs, the “Drill in Protected Areas Waltz“. If the solar projects in the southwest succeed in producing a lot of clean power, then there won’t be any need to drill or off the coast of Florida, now will there? So, the cynic in me says, they ordered the BLM to create the moratorium.
Perhaps you’ll all join with me now when I say again, with feeling this time, “AAAARGH!”
[Thanks to Scott for passing on the link.]