Energy | June 30, 2008 |
Bureau of Land Management Freezes Solar
I can't see any reason to stay thousands of solar projects across the U.S. for the purpose of conducting environmental investigations. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has never been enforced this way ever before, even in industries with established records of environmental destruction. Normally, Environmental Impact Statements (EIS), analyses of project impacts and mitigations, occur on a project-by-project basis. It's unclear how the BLM can even conduct a nationwide EIS, as it intends to do, since projects will have different impacts on different habitats.
With solar, the negative environmental impacts are minimal and the environmental benefits are tremendous. Unlike mountaintop removal mining or oil drilling, solar does not inflict major environmental damage. There is no footprint to speak of. The solar arrays we are talking about are likely to be built up off the ground, angled to catch the most light (as pictured); the impact is as serious as installing a bunch of poles. Having worked in wildlife conservation and fought for NEPA enforcement, I really don't see solar projects as the type NEPA was meant to slow or block.
Some of the best land for solar projects is on public property, in the wide-open stretches of abandoned pasture or uninhabited desert. Deserts have high ecological value, but much of the wildlife that depends on that habitat lives underground. A solar array wouldn't disrupt migration patterns, for instance, like oil drilling and piping does. You won’t ever have a solar spill wreaking havoc on Alaska, or solar subsidence after the earth has been mined out from under the people living on it.
In short, I believe that the BLM’s sudden great concern about the negative environmental impacts of solar is suspect, with little or no merit. My prediction is that the bureau's giant environmental impact statement will return a “FONSI,” or “Finding of No Significant Impact.”
The BLM claims it will take two years to complete the study. This is an unusually long timetable for an EIS, which can be completed in eight months or less by motivated consultants. I would hope that halting the progress of an entire industry would be sufficient motivation to ensure a speedy process.
This entire plan fails the sniff test. It is the type of news that fuels cynicism. To the best of my knowledge, the BLM has never demanded so much environmental responsibility from fossil industries. The approach seems counter-intuitive, as normal project-by-project analysis would be sufficient and more accurate at assessing impacts and assigning mitigation. Legislative Analyst Holly Gordon of Ausra Energy told The New York Times “It doesn’t make any sense… This could completely stunt the growth of the industry.”
Enterprising solar trade agencies should pursue equal protection claims and challenge the policy under the Administrative Procedures Act. The policy makes so little sense that it neatly fits ‘arbitrary and capricious’ -- the standard for reversing administrative decisions. If the freeze stands, it would amount to an enormous setback to clean energy so desperately needed by this country to temper energy prices and free us from the shackles of foreign oil.