January 15, 2010

Desert monuments legislation faces a busy Congress and political obstacles in Washington

The Press-Enterprise

Sen. Dianne Feinstein worked for years to reconcile the competing interests of environmentalists, renewable energy developers and others before crafting her recent legislation to create two national monuments in the Mojave Desert.

But political obstacles and unresolved concerns about power-line routes remain.

The proposed monuments -- Mojave Trails in eastern San Bernardino County and Sand to Snow between Joshua Tree National Park and the San Bernardino National Forest -- would preserve about 1 million acres. Wind and solar energy projects would be prohibited.

At the same time, the bill allows for construction of transmission lines within the Mojave Trails monument to carry electricity from renewable sources once existing corridors reach capacity.

Environmentalists support the bill but said they will push to limit power lines to existing transmission corridors and developed rights of way.

Power providers say new routes are needed to ensure secure, reliable transmission and meet the state's goal of supplying 33 percent of California's power with solar, wind and other alternative sources by 2020.

"Unfortunately, we do have what can be viewed as competing societal objectives. We want to use more renewables because it has lower impact on the environment, yet more renewables are located far from people. You have to build transmission lines to them somewhere. There are tradeoffs that are going to have to be made," said Pedro Pizarro, executive vice president for power operations for Southern California Edison.

Beyond those arguments, and despite buy-in by most of the interest groups that would be affected by the monument designations, the legislation faces significant hurdles in Congress.

The sheer magnitude of the plan -- setting aside 1 million acres of public land, among other provisions -- may slow its progress, and it would have to compete for floor time with proposed overhauls of the nation's health care system and other heavyweight legislation.

Though in the earliest stages, the bill is finding resistance from Republicans.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has been a staunch critic of wildland conservancy bills in recent years.

"He'll oppose it," Coburn spokesman John Hart said, pointing to an existing maintenance backlog in areas overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. "We can't take care of the federal land we already have."

Additionally, Coburn is against making land off-limits to development, especially if it supports alternative energy projects, Hart said.

If not there, where?

"If you can't develop solar energy in the Mojave Desert, where can you develop it?" he asked.

The bill also would need to pass the House, and no member has come forward with plans to introduce it in the lower chamber.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, who represents portions of the High Desert that would be impacted by the bill, has commended Feinstein for working closely with those affected by the bill, but he has not taken a position on it.

"I am extremely concerned that it locks up tens of thousands of acres that are not suitable for protection, and prevents other uses such as mining, energy development or military maneuvers that might better serve our national interests," Lewis, R-Redlands, said in a statement released upon introduction of the bill.

Feinstein said the bill is necessary to preserve natural habitats that need protection while encouraging energy development in more appropriate places.

"We worked hard to build a consensus between local governments, state agencies, the Defense Department and the Interior Department, environmental groups, renewable energy companies, public utility companies, off-road vehicle enthusiasts, hunters and many others," she said.

New technologies

The bill would provide loan guarantees and grants to develop and test new technologies such as higher-capacity wires and cost-effective underground transmission that could reduce impacts to sensitive species and eliminate the visual blight of towers in pristine areas of the desert.

Some environmentalists questioned the need for new transmission, but Pizarro, of Edison, said a study by the state Public Utilities Commission identified the need for seven to 11 new transmission lines across the state to carry the power necessary to meet renewable energy goals.

Even if solar and wind farms are located on land that is not environmentally sensitive, power would still have to be moved to people who need it, and the monuments are in that path, he said.

It's not realistic for all transmission lines to be built along existing corridors or highways because a single quake or fire could take down the whole grid, he said.

Environmental groups say they will work to bar new transmission corridors from the monuments.

Chase Huntley is energy policy adviser for The Wilderness Society, a national organization founded in 1935 to protect wilderness.

"Our focus is on ensuring that in the bill language, that any needed new transmission lines are focused in appropriate places -- existing corridors and already developed rights of way," he said.

Earlier versions of the bill excluded expansions of existing transmission lines, a point the state worked hard to change, said Tony Brunello, a deputy secretary with the California Natural Resources Agency. It now allows power poles to be replaced with high-voltage towers, even though those create a larger footprint.

The state also wants Feinstein's bill to take into account a long-term plan it is developing for conservation and renewable energy development zones.

"It uses science to determine the most biologically sensitive areas and lay out the future of the desert rather than political boundaries," Brunello said.