Soda Mountain Solar Project Highlights Environmentalists’ Internal Conflicts

(December 7)   The internecine fight among environmentalists over the approval of the Soda Mountain Solar Project is a showcase of the conflicted existential crisis that has beset the ecological movement over alternative energy projects.
The Soda Mountain project is a proposal by a limited liability company known as Soda Mountain Solar, which is a subdivision of the Bechtel Corporation, to build a 350-megawatt solar power generating field on 4,397 acres of Bureau of Land Management-administered property in the Mojave Desert six miles southwest of Baker.
So far, the proponents have filed a notice of intent to pre-prepare a draft environmental impact statement. Further steps in the approval process will entail the publication of the draft environmental impact statement for the project, making that statement available to the public, gathering public comment on the statement, the publication of a final environmental impact statement, making that statement publicly available, entering a record of decision on the acceptability of the project and then obtaining a right-of-way grant from the federal government for the approved project.
The 350 megawatts of energy to be produced by the project would meet the domestic electrical demands of 170,000 households and not entail the burning of fossil fuels, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the project site is relatively proximate to existing transmission lines bringing electrical power from Hoover Dam to Los Angeles. The addition of the electricity to be produced at Soda Mountain would contribute toward the effort to have California obtain 33 percent of its power from clean sources by 2020. In this way, the project is in keeping with several basic tenets and goals of the environmental/ecology movement.
Paradoxically, some environmentalists are maintaining that solar projects such as the one at Soda Mountain are too damaging to the immediate environs to be allowed to proceed. In the case of Soda Mountain, a collection of environmentalists cite how the project will cover just under seven square miles of densely occupied wildlife habitat involving the desert tortoise, roaming bighorn sheep and most specifically a rare desert fish that is close to extinction.
At the national level, the Obama administration has voiced approval of the concept of accelerated development of alternative energy sources. In the nearly four years that Barack Obama has been in office, however, there has been less progress in that regard than was anticipated. Environmentalists have in many cases objected to solar projects in California’s vast outback. Three of those were the Ivanpah Solar Project near the Nevada border at the northeast end of San Bernardino County, BrightSource Renewables, LLC’s solar project near Kramer Junction and KRoad Power’s Calico Solar project.
In an effort to facilitate alternative energy projects and bypass the knockdown, drag out fights that have in nearly every case delayed and in some cases derailed solar energy proposals, the Obama administration took action in the form of U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s creation of 17 solar energy zones in the Southwest deemed optimum for harnessing the sun’s radiating power. Those zones were selected in some measure because they are believed to be less wildlife intensive than other portions of the American desert.
None of the zones lies within San Bernardino County. Rather, the bureau has designated one 213-square mile solar power development zone in eastern Riverside County along Interstate 10 from Desert Center to Blythe and another slightly smaller area in Imperial County abutting the Mexican border.  Projects developed in those two areas will be favored with fast-tracked project reviews.
The creation of the zones did not preclude, however, project proponents seeking licensing and approval for projects elsewhere in the desert. Moreover, there were, prior to the October announcement of the creation of the solar power development zones, dozens of pending solar energy project applications. In some of those cases, the proponents own outright or have “tied-up” through purchase options the property where the solar projects are to be located. In other cases, such as at Soda Mountain, the proponents are seeking to lease public land from the government as sites.
In the instance of the proposed Soda Mountain Project, Bechtel acquired the rights to a filing for the project originally made in 2007 by New York-based Caithness Corp., which proposed establishing solar fields on both sides of Interstate 15 between Razor and Zzyzx roads. Bechtel is the largest construction and engineering firm in the United States, having been founded more than a century ago by Warren Bechtel and later headed by John McCone, a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In the 1930s, Bechtel was involved in the construction of the Hoover Dam.
Biologists have concerns over the project’s potential impacts on indigenous flora and fauna at the proposed project site. Large numbers of desert creosote on the property would be displaced, though those plants are not in danger of extinction. Desert tortoises live throughout the Mojave but surveys of the property done in 2009 by wildlife biologists commissioned by Caithness found no tortoises, which are threatened with extinction, on the property.
Bighorn sheep are known to pass over the property frequently. There is no indication, however, that the solar arrays would prove incompatible with them., though they might alter their path of migration.
The most serious known concern about the hazard the project represents to living creatures in the area pertains to the tui chub, a type of minnow, which proliferates in springs and ponds in the area. That portion of the desert is one of the few remaining habitats for the endangered fish. Bechtel/Soda Mountain Solar, LLC intends to draw water from the desert aquifer to periodically  wash the solar panels’ mirrors. Environmentalists have misgivings about a drawdown of the aquifer’s level, which could result in the parching of area’s springs and ponds, resulting in the death of the colonies of tui chub.
At present, environmentalists are linking forces with the National Park Service, which oversees the nearby Mojave National Preserve, and are lobbying the Bureau of Land Management to induce Bechtel/Soda Mountain Solar to consider re-proposing its project for location at one of the designated solar power development zones.

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