(Helen O’Shea and Ralph Cavanagh, NRDC)
Climate change is happening now and the stakes couldn’t be higher. NASA declared July 2016 the hottest month on record globally, and Californians are living the very real impacts of climate change as we enter our fifth year of an historic drought and wildfires burn from Big Sur to Mendocino. California has long been a pioneer in fighting climate change, and it made its leadership known again earlier this month by passing two bills setting the most ambitious carbon pollution reduction goals on the continent. As my colleague Alex Jackson so aptly put it, “The world is watching and California is stepping up.”
The State’s ambitious climate change goals as spelled out in the new legislation will require significant development of solar and wind in the biologically rich California desert. Fortunately California has long been a leader in conserving lands and wildlife as well as fighting climate change. In recognition of the importance of both conservation and climate change the State today partnered with the Department of the Interior to finalize the long-awaited Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and California Energy Commissioner Karen Douglas marked the signing of the Record of Decision for the landmark 10 million acre plan this morning in Palm Springs.
The DRECP is the result of 8 years of extensive state-federal partnership and stakeholder engagement—the final plan is the result of dozens of public meetings, the assessment of hundreds of datasets, and tens of thousands of public comments. The years of collaborative work on this landmark plan have paid off. The Department of Interior and their partners at the state of California should be congratulated for proving through the DRECP that conservation, clean energy and climate leadership can go hand in hand.
The DRECP is the most ambitious and innovative planning effort undertaken in the California desert and it strikes the right balance between the protection of critical desert resources and the responsible development of much-needed renewable energy—not an easy feat by any measure. The plan does this by embracing key principles of smart from the start planning that NRDC and other advocates have promoted for years:
- Assessing development at a landscape scale, rather than allowing site by site project decisions to be decided by a first come, first serve basis
- Guiding development to lower conflicts areas more appropriate for large scale development
- Deciding what lands should be off limits to development, by conserving lands that are ecologically important
- Requiring developers to meet a more strategic set of mitigation requirements, rather than allowing an ad hoc process that does not achieve meaningful conservation
The final DRECP builds on California’s remarkable desert conservation legacy by permanently protecting some of the Mojave’s most special places, including the spectacular Silurian Valley, which lies in between Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve; the biologically rich and diverse Chuckwalla Bench in Riverside County; the biologically rich Pisgah Valley which is critically important to both the iconic desert tortoise and bighorn sheep; and the wonderfully unique Amargosa watershed which is home to endemic species found nowhere else on the planet.
The DRECP also includes important clarification around some of the desert’s most important conservation resources. The plan clarifies that BLM lands added to the special National Conservation Lands System—a system set up specifically to recognize and protect BLM lands with nationally significant resources—are protected forever; that means they cannot be taken out of conservation by future land management plans.
The DRECP sets aside 388,888 acres (more than 600 square miles) of lower conflict land in Development Focus Areas or DFAs, where resource conflicts will be fewer and therefore development timelines will be shorter, mitigation obligations lower and project costs lower. The DFAs created through this plan include lands around the Salton Sea where renewable energy development has the potential to not only generate clean energy but also be part of a comprehensive solution to some of the Salton Sea’s ongoing environmental challenges. In addition, the plan identifies another 40,000 acres of Variance Lands where development is possible, but not streamlined.
The DRECP and Climate Leadership
As we move forward with pursuing our climate goals as aggressively as we can, it’s important to use all the tools at our disposal—the DRECP is a critical piece of a comprehensive plan to fight climate change that includes energy efficiency, conservation, distributed generation, and modernizing our electric grid to handle more renewables from both sides of the meter.
The passage of SB 350 in California, and more recently SB 32 and AB 197, and the federal Clean Power Plan are expected to drive a new round of utility scale renewable energy development across the west, so having plans in place to direct that development towards low conflict areas is particularly critical right now. The BLM component of the DRECP provides the cornerstone public lands element, and the next step is for the BLM and state agencies to work closely with the desert counties on Phase II of the DRECP to plan for renewable energy and conservation on private lands as well.
Phase II of the DRECP—the private lands piece involving the 7 counties within the DRECP planning area—Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego—will help align federal, state and local renewable energy development and conservation plans, policies and goals. To date, with funding support from the California Energy Commission, three counties have already identified 326,750 acres for renewable energy development on non-federal lands. Finalizing the private lands piece of the DRECP is essential to realizing the comprehensive, desert-wide vision originally articulated for the DRECP back in 2008 and for protecting California’s unique conservation legacy and clean energy future.