May 6, 2011

Solar threat

Desert Tortoise Estimate Undercuts ESA Listing

Riverside Press-Enterprise

The discovery of far more desert tortoises than expected near a planned solar power plant in the Mojave Desert should prompt federal officials to rethink the project. And the incident should spur federal officials to require independent environmental studies before bulldozers roll on future solar projects.

Last week, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management assessment found the $2.1 billion BrightSource Energy Co. project near Primm, Nev., would disturb up to 3,000 tortoises and kill as many as 700 young ones. That far exceeds an estimate of 32 of the threatened species at the site -- a number derived from studies commissioned by the developer.

After biologists relocated 39 tortoises -- the maximum allowed -- BLM officials last month ordered BrightSource to stop work on two-thirds of the 5.6-square-mile site. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials will decide soon if completing the second and third phases of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System -- which would nearly double the amount of solar electricity produced in the country -- would jeopardize the species.

The clean energy generated by this project is no excuse for federal officials to allow shoddy surveys that underestimate the tortoise population. A developer rushing to qualify for hundreds of millions in federal "stimulus" funding is hardly an objective source about issues that could obstruct construction. Federal officials should have required an independent biological survey before grading and construction work began in October. And that approach should be standard for the numerous solar projects now proposed for desert land.

In this case, the sheer number of the animals that would be killed or disturbed by the solar plant justifies a significant downsizing -- eliminating one or both of the last two phases. Federal officials could have avoided such backtracking had they had the right information before BrightSource broke ground.

Wildlife officials are likely under political pressure to let the developer proceed with much of the project. But even a compromise such as relocating large numbers of the animals would be highly risky. In 2008, the U.S. Army suspended a tortoise relocation effort at Fort Irwin after about 90 of the 556 tortoises moved died, mostly killed by coyotes.

The Mojave Desert, with endless sunny days, is not a bad place for solar power plants. But federal officials need to do a better job of surveying the native wildlife before construction starts. Green projects should not, ironically, degrade the very environment they are meant to help sustain.