June 1, 2009

Renewable energy sparks a probe of a modern-day land rush

Interior Department investigates an acquisition that involves use of public land for renewable energy. A larger issue: establishing standards for private companies using federal stimulus money.

By Louis Sahagun
Los Angeles Times

A rush to stake claims for renewable energy projects in the California desert has triggered a federal investigation and prompted calls for reforms to prevent public lands from being exposed to private profiteering and environmental degradation.

Officials said last week that the inspector general's office of the Department of the Interior was investigating Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar Inc.'s recent acquisition of Hayward, Calif.-based OptiSolar, and its unfinished renewable energy projects, for $400 million. The deal gave First Solar control of what the company described as OptiSolar's "strategic land rights" to 136,000 acres of public land in San Bernardino, Riverside and Kern counties.

Bureau of Land Management officials, however, said First Solar acquired OptiSolar's applications to develop that land.

"There is no value associated with a mere application, which could be rejected by us for a variety of reasons," said Greg Miller, renewable energy program manager for the BLM office in Moreno Valley.

"A company can buy another company along with its applications, as long as those applications are not listed as assets. That would be wrong," Miller said. "We're trying to weed out speculators who are filing applications, then waiting for someone to buy them at the highest price."

First Solar spokeswoman Lisa Morse said the transaction was above board. "We now have OptiSolar, and the applications were an important part of it for us," she said. "OptiSolar, which we acquired as a whole, is now a subsidiary of First Solar."

David Brown, special agent in charge of investigations for the inspector general's Western region, declined to discuss any ongoing investigation. But he said that any company that might receive federal stimulus money is a concern and that his office is trying to get ahead of any potential problems by reviewing all such projects.

The investigation comes amid debate over how best to control burgeoning renewable energy industries as they overwhelm the chronically understaffed and underfunded BLM with an avalanche of applications. Environmentalists say the situation is a preeminent conservation issue and a crucial test of the Obama administration's commitment to the environment.

Three years ago, the bureau had six applications for solar energy projects on file. Over the last year, it has received 130 additional applications from 50 companies, covering about 600,000 acres -- much of it in one of the sunniest regions on Earth, the Mojave Desert.

Some applicants are asking for parcels as small as 250 acres. Then there is Cogentrix Solar Investments, which is seeking more than 300,000 acres.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's executive order that a third of the state's electricity come from renewable resources by 2020 -- coupled with billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds expected to become available next year for wind, solar and biofuel projects -- has the BLM whipsawed by opposing forces.

Companies queuing up to develop solar farms say they want to replace imported oil and facilitate a national clean-energy economy. The environmental community also wants to ensure that scenic landscapes and ecosystems are not trampled in the process.

"My concern is that highly speculative and perhaps fraudulent investment games are being played with hundreds of thousands of acres of public land," said Bruce Pavlik, a professor of biology at Mills College.

San Francisco attorney Peter Weiner, whose clients include renewable energy companies and trade organizations, would not go that far.

"The fears of paving over the desert are not well-taken; there will ultimately be many fewer projects than there are applications," he said. "But it would be a mistake to think we can free ourselves from foreign oil and fossil fuels without impacting other environmental values."

In the meantime, applications for proposed renewable energy projects continue to stack up in BLM desert offices.

Hot spots of contention include 600,000 acres of former railroad lands between Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park.

The land was purchased with $40 million in private donations collected by the Wildlands Conservancy and $18 million in federal funds, then donated to the Department of Interior for conservation.

Earlier this year, however, environmentalists were outraged to learn that the BLM was entertaining 19 applications for renewable energy projects on the donated lands, which Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wants to transform into a national monument.

Feinstein urged Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to suspend the applications.

Salazar, in a seeming compromise, responded by saying that "both national priorities -- developing renewable energy and preserving our treasured landscapes -- can be accommodated with careful siting and mutual consideration."

James Wesley Abbott, acting state director of the BLM, sided with Feinstein on Wednesday and instructed all deputy state directors, district managers and field offices to avoid authorizing more applications, or development, on lands acquired under donor agreements.

A coalition of a dozen environmental groups led by the Wildlands Conservancy has identified 137,000 acres of public and private agricultural and degraded desert lands -- all near existing transmission lines -- that could be used for solar energy farms.

"On these alternative lands we can unite what otherwise would be conflicting environmental interests," said David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy.

"It would be a real shame if the public policy for our new green economy was driven haphazardly by speculators," he said.