BLM Okays 287 Megawatt, 1,767 Acre Soda Mountain Solar Plant Near Baker

The U.S. Department of the Interior has given go-ahead to the Soda Mountain Solar Project some six miles southwest of Baker, with Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider signing a record of decision with regard to the project on March 28.
The 287 megawatt facility is to be constructed on 1,767 acres of public land, which is 790 acres fewer than the 2,557-acre footprint originally proposed.
The project applicant is an entity known as Soda Mountain Solar LLC, a corporate affiliate of the Bechtel Corporation, which two generations ago was headed by former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman and former CIA Director John McCone. Under the National Environmental Protection Act, the company sought a right-of-way grant from the Bureau of Land Management for approximately 4,179 acres. Within those 4,179 acres, according to the application, construction and operation would have covered approximately 2,557 acres.
Following final engineering and micro-siting of the project, a project evaluation determined that there would be areas within the originally proposed project footprint that would remain undisturbed and not within fenced areas to be included in the right-of-way grant. In addition to the right-of-way grant, a land use plan amendment was also required to identify the site in the California Desert Conservation Area Plan of 1980. Under the dual restrictions outlined in the California Desert Conservation Area Plan and the National Environmental Protection Act, further reductions in the scope of the project were made.
These changes resulted in the 358-megawatt output originally envisaged in the project being downscaled to 287 megawatts and the project size be lessened to 1,767 acres.
The applicant proposed to construct and operate several groundwater wells and submitted a well construction permit application to the San Bernardino County Land Use Services Division.
The application and approval process has proceeded for two years, as the application with the Department of the Interior triggered objections from a multitude of parties, including some environmentalists, desert recreation and off-road enthusiasts, national park users, scientists, former Interior Department employees and local land and business owners. In addition, the National Park Service urged denial of the project. Collectively, they petitioned the Interior Department a year ago to designate the Soda Mountains an area of critical environmental concern, a categorization that would have prevented the project from proceeding.
Soda Mountain Solar is widely regarded as the most controversial renewable energy proposal in the region. Opponents say it will industrialize important habitat for bighorn sheep and other wildlife, less than half a mile from the Mojave National Preserve.
Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of National Parks Conservation Association, summarized the opponents’ objections. Pierno called the approval “an incredibly disappointing move.” She characterized the Soda Mountain Solar facility as a “harmful renewable energy project that is devoid of public support” which upon completion will inhibit national park wildlife from migrating and adapting to a changing climate. The approval of Soda Mountain Solar is a stark contradiction by the Obama Administration,” she said, which runs counter to an earlier Obama Administration move that “designated national monuments in the California desert to protect and connect important landscapes.” The project’s approval, she said, fails to abide by the Interior Department’s pledge to balance energy development with the protection of special places. We will continue to fight this decision and work to protect this pristine, beautiful, wildlife-rich landscape.”
A Bureau of Land Management document, however, propounded that the project fulfilled ecological goals.
“The Bureau of Land Management’s purpose and need for the project is to respond to the applicant’s application under
Title V of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act for a right-of-way grant to construct, operate, maintain, and commission a solar photovoltaic facility on public lands in compliance with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act Bureau of Land Management regulations, and other applicable federal laws. In accordance with Section 103(c) of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (43 USC §1702(a)), public lands are to be managed for multiple uses that take into account the long-term needs of future generations for renewable and non-renewable resources. The Secretary of the Interior is authorized to grant rights-of-way on public lands for systems of generation, transmission, and distribution of electric energy (43 USC §1761(a)(4)).”
Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider emphasized that the project will go a good distance toward meeting President Obama’s Climate Action Plan goal of 20,000 megawatts (MW) of power derived from renewable energy projects on public lands by 2020, while avoiding destruction of hitherto undisturbed land. The Soda Mountain Solar Project is to be located in an area of disturbed lands that include Interstate 15 and an active utility corridor for oil and gas pipelines, electricity transmission and communication lines and facilities. Adjacent to the site is the corridor for the approved and yet to be constructed high speed rail route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The facility is also proximate to the Rasor Off Highway Vehicle Area.
“Today’s approval is the result of a comprehensive, multi-year environmental review and extensive consultation process, including scientific analysis and meaningful mitigation measures to reduce potential impacts to resources,” said Schneider. “The rigorous standards of outreach, analysis and mitigation for the project reflect this administration’s commitment to facilitate responsible clean energy development in the right places and in the right ways.”
Since 2009, the Department of the Interior has permitted 58 utility-scale renewable energy projects on the nation’s public lands, including 35 solar, 11 wind and 12 geothermal utility-scale renewable energy projects and associated transmission infrastructure. Together, these 58 projects could support nearly 15,500 MWs of renewable energy capacity, enough to power about five million homes and representing $40 billion in potential private capital investments.
“Soda Mountain is another step forward toward diversifying our nation’s energy portfolio and meeting the State of California’s growing demand for renewable energy,” said Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze. “The project is consistent with the BLM’s landscape approach for the California desert, which supports careful development of renewable energy where it makes sense while protecting the resources and places that make the desert special.”

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