Continuing Efforts To Protect The Desert From Industrial-Scale Solar

This story appeared in the September 2013 issue of Desert Report.

Over the past few years, Desert Report readers have learned steadily more about the terrible impacts of the Obama Interior Department’s industrial-solar invasion of our desert ecosystems and about the unexamined alternatives for renewable energy development that could spare these public lands.

Many of us were initially ambivalent about taking on the issue, knowing that renewable energy was the right path to follow, and not yet understanding the severity of what was coming.

Thanks to Obama’s fast-tracking of industrial solar projects through lavish subsidies and expedited permitting, the ugly truth soon revealed itself. For my organization–with a mission to keep public land public–it was not possible to turn away from the issue when we realized that the policy promoted by Interior is essentially privatizing our public land: desert sites are scraped raw, utterly transformed, and fenced off. The land may be leased rather than sold, but there is no getting it back—for even if a solar plant is dismantled after the 30- to 50-year life of its permit, from a land-use perspective it has been permanently industrialized and from an ecological perspective it cannot be restored. The impacts of Big Solar on public lands could doom whatever chance desert ecosystems may have to remain functional in the face of climate change.

Solar Desert Sunlight construction zone, December 2011 Photo by Chris Clarke | KCET
Solar Desert Sunlight construction zone, December 2011. Photo by Chris Clarke | KCET

With the help of long-time desert activists and solar energy wonks, we formed Solar Done Right, a coalition focused on both illuminating the environmental destruction and waste associated with industrial-scale solar and raising public awareness of distributed generation (DG)—the localized, efficient, democratic, and cost-effective alternative that puts solar on rooftops and in the built environment. We camped out in the desert to bear witness to an ecosystem in peril, then flew to Washington D.C. to educate law-and policy-makers and urge a change in course. We published papers and op-eds; gave presentations and media interviews; strategized with grassroots groups; and exhorted the national environmental organizations to get on the right side of the issue.

We did not expect these efforts to result in a quick change in policy, as the issue of renewable energy development has presented obstacles that make it especially challenging. Here, the entrenched interests of corporations, the Democratic Party, major environmental organizations, and the big foundations have aligned to support the industrialization of our desert public lands and have formed a bulwark of misinformation and false choices in support of Big Solar.

Our latest action brings us head-to-head against the Administration and its policy: Western Lands Project, the Desert Protective Council, and Western Watersheds Project have filed a legal challenge against the Interior Department’s decision to keep 19 millions of acres of public land available to industry for utility-scale solar plants.

Western Lands Staff Attorney Chris Krupp is representing the plaintiffs.

The complaint filed on February 12, 2013 cited the government’s failure to consider alternatives that would focus solar development on degraded lands and in the alreadybuilt environment. The government’s analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) ignored alternative approaches that would be far less damaging to the environment, more efficient, and less costly to taxpayers and ratepayers.


In May 2008, the Interior and Energy departments initiated an effort that would result in a policy for siting industrial-scale solar projects on public land. The centerpiece was a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS). Like a regular environmental impact statement (EIS), this would look at alternatives—but beyond the single-project, site-specific analysis in a regular EIS, its goal would be to arrive at an overall framework for the government’s permitting of solar projects.

Soon after this, Obama Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made solar development on public land a top priority and one of his highest-profile issues, heralding an approach he called “smart from the start.” The Bureau of Land Management, an agency of Interior, manages the lands involved and was in charge of the PEIS effort. Initially, the BLM focused on identifying Solar Energy Zones—defined areas within which solar development would be permitted—in six southwestern states, adding up to some 670,000 acres.

The expectation was that these zones would bear the brunt of solar development and that their establishment signaled a genuine intention to limit the amount of public land open to industrialization. To the contrary, however, the draft PEIS identified a “preferred alternative” that would keep 22 million acres open, and the supplemental draft PEIS opened 21.5 million.

The final plan’s preferred alternative was to keep 19 million acres open, and designate solar energy zones on a little less than 300,000 acres, in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Permits for development in the zones would be streamlined, while those in the larger acreage would require a variance.

Then-Interior Secretary Salazar signed off on the plan on October 12, 2012, before retiring in April 2013.

Ivanpah, June 2013. Basin and Range Watch photo


Our lawsuit asserts that BLM violated NEPA by failing to examine two additional alternatives: a distributed generation (DG) alternative, and another in which solar energy facilities would be sited on previously degraded or damaged lands. During the PEIS comment periods, we, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, called for analysis of these alternatives, but BLM ignored them. In fact, through a program called “Repowering America’s Lands,” EPA has identified and created a database of contaminated and degraded lands potentially suitable for siting of renewables and including areas close to existing transmission lines. EPA requested that the BLM at the very least append information about this program to the PEIS.

Again, the agency ignored this request.

Analysis of alternatives is a central component of NEPA. Comparing the impacts of a range of alternatives is not intended simply to aid the public’s understanding, but to help the agency arrive at a better-informed decision. The plaintiffs strongly believe that the superiority of the DG and degraded-lands options would be clear had they been analyzed next to the others.

The limitations inherent in NEPA litigation are legendary. The courts have determined that NEPA is procedural, rather than a substantive law—meaning that the law only requires agencies to properly follow its procedures pertaining to notification, public involvement, analysis, etc. and does not require that the agency choose a particular alternative.

That is, it does not dictate the substantive result. Thus a successful challenge of the NEPA analysis may only result in further analysis followed by the very same decision.

The same may hold true for a programmatic EIS: as the result of a NEPA court victory, the agency might examine the DG and degraded-land alternatives and end up choosing the 19-millionacre alternative yet again. However, we believe that if DG and degraded-land alternatives were actually analyzed and could be compared side-by-side to the current proposal, the superiority of these alternatives would be clear—to the public at large, certainly, and perhaps to the national environmental groups as well. This knowledge in turn could bring about the needed change in policy.

That is our hope.

The powerful interests that support Big Solar have created many false story lines: that in order to confront the climate crisis, we must deploy massive renewable-energy infrastructure on public lands; that those who oppose Big Solar are either climatedeniers or coal-industry sympathizers; and that the sacrifice of desert ecosystems is a necessary tradeoff in the pursuit of renewable energy.

We don’t believe these stories, and we will continue to advance the truth in every venue available, including the courts.

Janine Blaeloch is Director of the Western Lands Project, which monitors federal land sales and exchanges across the West and beyond, and which works to protect public land from privatization. She is also a co-founder of Solar Done Right.