Soda Mountain Solar Farm Foes Hope Pending Election Will Doom Project

The 2016 electoral season has given the opponents of the Soda Mountain Solar Project one last hope in their effort to block the project, which is to be located on federal land and has already been given approval by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The 287-megawatt facility to be constructed on 1,767 acres of public land would qualify as one of the ten largest solar facilities worldwide, representing a coup for the Barack Obama Administration, whose efforts to make a mark in promoting renewable energy programs bogged down in failure and scandal during Obama’s first term as president with the squandering of a half-billion-dollar federal loan to Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer, which then failed to deliver, as well as a $400 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy to Abound Solar, which sold defective or underperforming solar panels and other related products. That money was provided to Abound, despite information having been provided to Department of Energy officials that the panels were faulty before the company received taxpayer dollars.
Despite the consideration that the solar plant would represent a major stride in the effort to move away from reliance on the use of fossil fuels, environmentalists have taken issue with the project because of its siting on undisturbed, indeed what some refer to as “pristine,” land some six miles southwest of Baker. Opponents of the project assert that an effort should be made to locate such a massive development on desert property that has already been developed or “disturbed.” Proponents point out that doing as the environmentalists request would put the facility much closer to existing populated areas where residents have already made vociferous and successful protest to the proposed placement of other less expansive solar projects. Proponents also dispute the assertion that the project site is truly “undisturbed.”
Already, the Soda Mountain Solar power project has been scaled back from the 358-megawatt output facility originally proposed in 2007, and it will exist on 790 fewer acres than the even-larger design propounded by its original proponent, New York-based Caithness Corporation, which had requested a 2,557-acre footprint within a larger 4,179-acre zone of exclusive occupation.
The initial project proposal came toward the end of the George W. Bush Administration. When Barack Obama became president, there was indication that the Soda Mountain project would be fast tracked for approval as a renewable energy project. But the prioritization lagged when during the federal scoping process, the potential that the project would compromise the habitat of the big horn sheep that wander in that neck of the desert was raised.
The Bechtel Corporation two generations ago was headed by former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman/CIA Director John McCone. In conjunction with its corporate affiliate, Soda Mountain Solar LLC, Bechtel acquired the project from the Caithness Corporation. Under the National Environmental Protection Act, Bechtel at first proceeded with pushing the project application, as originally proposed, to a conclusion, seeking a right-of-way grant from the Bureau of Land Management for approximately 4,179 acres, within which the 2,557-acre expanse of the solar plant, as then planned, was to be built.
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, reductions in the scope of the project were made.
These changes resulted in the 358-megawatt output originally envisaged for the project being downscaled to 287 megawatts and the project size being lessened to 1,767 acres.
In early April, the U.S. Department of the Interior announce it had given go-ahead to the project, with Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider having signed a record of decision with regard to the undertaking on March 28, 2016.
That approval came after a somewhat tortuous two-year process, during which 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 17 months ago to designate the Soda Mountains an area of critical environmental concern, a categorization that would have prevented the project from proceeding.
Opponents of the project, which as currently proposed is to be spread over more than four square miles, say it will industrialize important habitat for bighorn sheep, burrowing owls, desert kit foxes, desert tortoises, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, golden eagles and other wildlife, less than half a mile from the Mojave National Preserve.
Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of National Parks Conservation Association, called the approval “an incredibly disappointing move” which contradicted the Obama Administration’s commitment “to protect and connect important landscapes” within “designated national monuments in the California desert.” 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.
While project opponents maintain the project site is a pristine expanse of the desert, Schneider said, “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.”
Bechtel, which was instrumental in obtaining the federal permits and entitlement to proceed with the project, has now handed the project off to another Bay Area company, Regenerate Power.
Though the property upon which the solar facility is to be built is federal land and the Department of the Interior had certified the project under the National Environmental Protection Act, the federal processes are not the final word on the permitting of the project.
It is this need for meeting the State of California’s environmental certification requirements, which is to be processed at the county level, which offers project opponents a last ditch opportunity to stop the project.
It is projected that a solar project the size of that proposed for Soda Mountain would utilize as much as 2,000 acre feet of water during construction, and will require over 40 acre feet of water a year for solar panel washing. Thus, a deep on-site well will have to be sunk. The County of San Bernardino has jurisdiction to grant permits for on-site wells. The San Bernardino County Department of Public Health/Division of Environmental Health Services evaluates the criteria related to well permits.
For full and final approval, the project further needs to be certified as being in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act. The county is also the lead agency for compliance with that act, known by its acronym CEQA. The county’s Land Use Services division is the entity charged with doing CEQA analyses. Like the Department of Public Health, Land Use Services does an analysis and makes a recommendation to the county board of supervisors. Thus, it is the board of supervisors which will actually vote on the well permits and acceptance of the environmental impact report registering compliance with California Environmental Quality Act requirements.
The county is scheduled to make a consideration of the Soda Mountain Solar Project during a public hearing before the board of supervisors at that body’s August 23 meeting. While the staff report to the board will not be available until approximately 3 p.m. on the August 19, the Friday prior to the Tuesday meeting, the Sentinel has learned that the board will be given recommendations to approve the well permit and certify the CEQA environmental report.
County spokesperson David Wert told the Sentinel this week “The Department of Public Health/Division of Environmental Health Services is recommending approval of the well permits.” Moreover, Wert said, “Land Use Services will recommend certification of the environmental impact report, but keep in mind that certification of an environmental impact report is not a statement that a project is environmentally sound. It is merely a determination that the contents of the EIR and the process for completing the environmental impact report comply with the requirements of CEQA.”
It thus appears that the project will likely be given go-ahead. The only prospect for the project being blocked is that its opponents might prevail on First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood, in whose district the project is located, to vote against the well permit approval and CEQA certification. Lovingood’s rejection of the project, coupled with his ability to persuade his board colleagues to back him in that opposition with regard to a decision impacting the jurisdiction he represents, might result in the project being halted. Nevertheless, with Bechtel, one of the country’s leading engineering and construction companies, behind the project and the federal government likewise favoring it, the prospect that county officials will defy those forces to block the project appears dim.
David Lamfrom, who is active in the National Parks Conservation Association, told the Sentinel that he views the upcoming board of supervisors’ vote as “a much more complicated issue than the approval of a well permit. There are multiple issues related to the county’s vote on the CEQA matter. There are significant impacts to be brought up in the [environmental impact] statement the county will need to deal with. The question is: ‘Will the project proponent be able to mitigate those impacts?’ If those mitigation measures are found to be insufficient, the county could still make a statement or finding of overriding considerations and let the project proceed.”
Such a course of action by the county, Lamfrom said, is fraught with consequences.
“If the county does certify the environmental impact report and the mitigation measures as sufficient, it will take on the liability that represents,” Lamfrom said, essentially letting the federal government off the hook. “The Department of the Interior made its finding under NEPA [the National Environmental Protection Act], which is different from the CEQA. The BLM [Bureau of Land Management] received six letters from the Department of Fish & Game stating the mitigation measures proposed are not sufficient. It is not the Department of the Interior that will certify that the environmental process is complete. Instead, it is the county making that leap. This is an example of federal overreach that is putting the county in a bad position. The federal government will get the credit for a renewable energy project but the county will be left with the responsibility and any potential liability.”
Both Lamfrom and another project opponent, Jacob Overson, see in the current race for First District supervisor, an opportunity to sway First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood.
Overson pointed out that Lovingood is locked in a tight race against challenger Angela Valles, a former Victorville councilwoman. Overson, who is the manager of the Baker Community Services District, has personally called upon Lovingood and the other San Bernardino County supervisors to oppose the Soda Mountain Solar Project. “Soda Mountain Solar has been forced on the county and local communities by outside interests seeking their own political and financial goals, while we deal with the environmental consequences,” Overson said. “San Bernardino County Supervisor Lovingood and the rest of the board of supervisors have a chance to support a more sensible renewable energy policy by rejecting Soda Mountain Solar’s well water permit.” Overson said of Lovingood, “It looks like he is against it, but it’s hard to say.”
Overson maintains he is not alone in importuning Lovingood to reject the project proposal, and that given the degree of lobbying against the project that has gone on at a grassroots level he believes Lovingood understands that approving the project could jeopardize his reelection.
Lamfrom expressed hope rather than confidence such a message had been received and understood by Lovingood.
“This has become a politically charged local issue,” Lamfrom said. “I don’t know how the votes will line up, though.” He did say that he believes Lovingood’s decision on the matter, since the project is within his district, will likely influence the other members of the board. In this way, Lamfrom said, the election represents a hammer that might render the approval/disapproval process for the project malleable.
Don Holland, Lovingood’s field representative in Victorville, told the Sentinel that at this point Supervisor Lovingood has not committed one way or the other with regard to the project. “He can’t do that at this time,” Holland said. “There is a deliberative process that must take place. He needs to consider what is in the staff report. It is important for him to consider everything that will be brought up at the public hearing on August 23 and hear what those in favor of the project have to say and listen to those who are opposed.”
Holland said he has not detected which way Lovingood is leaning with respect to the issue. “He hasn’t made any decision that I know of,” Holland said.
Adriane Wodey of Soda Mountain Solar said the expressions of concern about the unsuitability of the site for a solar plant are misplaced, that the project will not represent an ecological threat, and that the site is relatively devoid of species of any sort, let alone endangered ones, which would be put at risk by the project.
“The project site does not have high concentrations or major populations of species,” Wodey said. “The project site is characterized by sparse vegetation and low abundance and diversity of wildlife. There are no rare or sensitive natural communities within the Soda Mountain Solar Project site. The project site is completely dominated by Mojave creosote bush scrub, which is common throughout the desert. Land uses directly adjacent to the project site include: Rasor Road off-highway vehicle area; two transmission lines; a power distribution line; a telephone line; a cellular tower; two fuel pipelines; and underground fiber optic cable. The project site does not support high concentrations of sensitive or other biological resources. The project site exhibits low biological sensitivity and should not be designated as a moderate biological sensitivity area. The project site is highly affected by the presence of I-15 and the existing intensive land uses within the area. The project site exhibits fewer siting constraints than most sites previously approved or currently under consideration by the BLM for solar development in California.”

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