Soda Mountain Solar Looms Over Mojave National Preserve

The fundamental contradiction in the numerous proposals by private companies to build industrial-scale renewable energy projects and long-distance power lines on acreage administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is that the lands are public while the profits from the construction and operation (or sale) of the power plants and transmission lines accrue to large corporations. The public does gain electricity. Yet the energy would be just as available and the contradiction avoided through siting on private, previously-disturbed lands or through distributed generation at sites near where the electricity is consumed.

The contradiction is especially evident in the proposal by Soda Mountain Solar, a subsidiary of Bechtel Development Company, to site its Soda Mountain Solar project (hereafter, project) on public lands immediately adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve, the third largest unit of the National Park System in the contiguous U.S. at 1.6 million acres.

A sunrise view of the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project. Photographed from the northern tip of the proposed 'North Array' near Blue Bell Mine access road. Interstate 15 runs horizontally through the frame. Credit, Michael Gordon
A sunrise view of the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project. Photographed from the northern tip of the proposed ‘North Array’ near Blue Bell Mine access road. Interstate 15 runs horizontally through the frame. Credit, Michael Gordon

The proposed project is a 350-megawatt photovoltaic (PV) electric power generating plant set for siting on 4,397 acres of public land administered by the BLM some 6 miles southwest of Baker, California. The application by Soda Mountain Solar, LLC requests a right-of-way authorization to construct a solar field on 2,691 acres, a project substation, an access road, operations and maintenance buildings, and to realign approximately 3.3 miles of Rasor Road. The North Array, on the west side of Interstate 15, is proposed to end in the vicinity of the Zzyzx Road overpass. On the other side of the highway, the South Array will be situated next to the Rasor Off-Highway Vehicle Area. The East Array is proposed for construction immediately to the north, less than one mile from the Mojave National Preserve boundary and at the base of the mountains extending into the park.

The Public Scoping Report was released in January 2013 by BLM, the lead NEPA agency for National Environmental Policy Act proceedings, and San Bernardino County, the lead CEQA agency under the California Environmental Quality Act. The letters of commentary submitted by individuals, environmental organizations, California government agencies, and such national entities as the National Park Service during the October to December 2012 scoping period and summarized in the Report delineate a host of likely environmental consequences to public lands and the Mojave National Preserve, many of which may be irreversible. The potential, significant environmental impacts include decreased spring discharge in the Soda Springs (Zzyzx) area as a result of groundwater pumping for the project, loss of habitat for the endangered Mohave tui chub, loss of high-quality desert tortoise habitat, increased habitat fragmentation for desert bighorn sheep, and the loss of wildlife connectivity with the Soda Mountains.

sodamountainsmapThe consequences for the Mojave National Preserve are of special concern because the project threatens not only the particular resources and landscape that Congress mandated to be protected by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, but the very integrity of this treasured unit of the National Park System. The integrity of the Preserve — its essential quality — rests on the fact that it (a) protects a relatively intact ecosystem of the eastern Mojave Desert from threats associated with commercial development, (b) provides connectivity between other protected national areas within the Mojave desert region, and (c) provides opportunities for solitude, thereby functioning as a refuge from urban areas.

It is disingenuous to reject this argument merely because the project would be sited on the doorstep of the Mojave National Preserve rather than within its boundaries. The currently undeveloped, natural area at the northwest corner of the Mojave National Preserve where the project might be sited is effectively part of the park. This is most evident with respect to the unobstructed and dramatic view into the Preserve documented in the panoramic photo by Michael Gordon. This vista would be obscured by project buildings and PV panels attached to single-axis trackers with a minimum height of 20 feet. In order to ensure solitude for visitors and a refuge from urban areas, the National Park Service manages the Preserve to protect dark skies. A solar facility at the corner of the Preserve is incompatible with that management goal because a solar facility with all of its lighting will significantly degrade the visitor experience. The project will violate the visual integrity of the Preserve.

The proposal to site the Soda Mountain Solar project near the Mojave National Preserve and the likely consequences of that for local citizens reflect the growing income inequality in the United States, the gap between the richest 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent of the population in America. Bechtel, a transnational corporation that will profit financially from the construction of the project, is a privately-owned engineering and construction firm. Chairman and chief executive officer Riley P. Bechtel is the great grandson of founder Warren A. Bechtel and heir to the company. Riley Bechtel is consistently ranked in the top 200 richest people in the United States and among the richest men in the world. Thus a Soda Mountain Solar project will not be built adjacent to Bohemian Grove in Sonoma County, site of the San Francisco-based exclusive men’s hangout known as the Bohemian Club, where members like Riley Bechtel encamp each summer. But it will be constructed on public land far from the closed-to-the-public encampment in Sonoma.

Tarantula hawks (Pepsis spp.) on Desert Milkweed (Asclepias erosa) in the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project area. Credit, Michael Gordon
Tarantula hawks (Pepsis spp.) on Desert Milkweed (Asclepias erosa) in the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project area. Credit, Michael Gordon

This is more than an academic argument as the public resources at risk from the project are those enjoyed by the 99 percent. Annually, some 550,000 people visit the Preserve and their experience will be impacted by Soda Mountain Solar. School children from the gate-way community of Barstow, many of whom have never been to a national park, travel via Zzyzx Road (and through the project if it is built) on National Park Service-organized field trips to the Desert Studies Center to experience the desert up close, to learn of the history and culture of the Chemehuevi, and, if they are lucky, to see the bighorn sheep that frequent the springs in the area. The Desert Studies Center, a field station of California State University, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It provides an opportunity for these children to receive instruction among natural ponds, dry lakes, and rugged mountains. Local citizens who use the Rasor Off-Highway Vehicle Area will be impacted by the realignment of Rasor Road. The safety of the thousands who travel to and from Las Vegas on Interstate 15 may be at risk from the glare of the estimated 1.5 million PV panels that will comprise the facility. The project simply does not serve the public interest.

There is a larger, regional context for the contradiction between private and public interests revealed by the Soda Mountain Solar project. The once-dramatic view of the Ivanpah Valley on a moonlit night from atop Clark Mountain, a singular unit of Mojave National Preserve, has been altered beyond redemption by the panels, looming towers, and bright lights of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a power facility built by BrightSource Energy and Bechtel. The Iberdrola energy project, proposed for the Silurian Valley a few miles away, would, along with the Soda Mountain Solar project, interfere markedly with connectivity between Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, an essential habitat corridor with Mojave National Preserve at its biological center.

Perhaps, as with the Wall Street movement, those who care deeply about Mojave National Preserve will occupy the contested space to protect the public interest.

G. Sidney Silliman is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and a member of the California/Nevada Desert Committee. The arguments expressed here do not represent the views of the Committee or the University.