Saturday, June 28, 2008

Like I said, still around

Updated Okay, even in the middle of my latest funk, I just couldn't let this one pass. Friday's New York Times reported that
[f]aced with a surge in the number of proposed solar power plants, the federal government has placed a moratorium on new solar projects on public land until it studies their environmental impact, which is expected to take about two years.

The Bureau of Land Management says an extensive environmental study is needed to determine how large solar plants might affect millions of acres it oversees in six Western states - Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
Proceeding with major projects without considering their environmental impact, bad. Therefore, environmental impact study, good. But, please. The BLM?

This is the agency that in 2005 was found by a Government Accountability Office investigation to be so focused on issuing oil and natural gas exploration permits that the staff didn't have time to pay proper attention to doing the related environmental studies - a problem the agency "solved" by bringing in volunteers to expedite those reviews, "volunteers" who actually were paid consultants to the oil and gas industry.

This is the agency that over the past several years has been so busy giving away leases for oil and gas development, giving control of public lands to private corporations, that it has outstripped the ability of the energy corporations to make use of them: There are now leases covering more than 44 million acres of public lands - with drilling taking place on leases covering about a quarter of that land.

This is the agency that last August simply declared a whole range of oil and gas exploration methods exempt from environmental review by ruling they had no significant impact, even though such "categorical exclusions" had previously been applied to activities such as cutting Christmas trees and picking mushrooms.

This is the agency that continues to grant "exceptions" to terms that had been intended to protect the environment in leases for oil and gas exploitation.

This is the agency that in December proposed opening 1.9 million acres of public lands in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming for commercial shale oil development.

This is the agency that wants to open 11 million pristine acres in Utah which its own survey labels "roadless" to hundreds of miles of off-road vehicle routes in a first step toward opening many more such routes across the western US, despite the risk to archaeological sites. The Wilderness Society says that
[p]rofessional archaeologists broadly agree that cultural resources are at much greater risk of vandalism, looting, and unintentional damages when located near roads and off-road vehicle routes. ... Although BLM has been working on these off-road vehicle travel plans for nearly six years, the agency has not conducted comprehensive archaeological surveys of the areas in which off-road vehicle routes are proposed, including areas that are known to have cultural resources. As a result, the agency is acting blindly and recklessly and putting the nation’s cultural heritage at risk.
So isn't it just so very moving, so very heart-warming, that this is the agency, this same agency, that gets all touchy-feely about the importance of protecting the environment when renewable energy not yet controlled by major corporations is involved?
[T]he decision to freeze new solar proposals temporarily, reached late last month, has caused widespread concern in the alternative-energy industry, as fledgling solar companies must wait to see if they can realize their hopes of harnessing power from swaths of sun-baked public land, just as the demand for viable alternative energy is accelerating. ...

Photovoltaic solar projects grew by 48 percent in 2007 compared with 2006. Eleven concentrating solar plants are operational in the United States, and 20 are in various stages of planning or permitting, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association [SEIA].
The projects proposed involve something over one million acres of public lands, in contrast to the 11 million acres to be opened to off-road vehicles and the 44 million acres leased to oil and gas giants, with all their "exclusions" and "exceptions." But solar is
"a very young industry, and the majority of us that are involved are young, struggling, hungry companies,” said Lee Wallach of Solel, a solar power company based in California,
and ya know, in a case like that, when it doesn't involve those notable corporate environmental stewards such as Exxon-Mobil, ya just can't be too careful.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Holly Gordon, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs for Ausra, a solar thermal energy company in Palo Alto, Calif.
Actually, Ms. Gordon, if you think it through, it makes perfect sense.

Footnote: A double-whammy for solar energy is looming, as the federal tax breaks afforded for solar energy development will run out the end of this year unless Congress renews them. Without those breaks,
says Rhone Resch of SEIA, no more CSP [concentrating solar power] plants will be built
in the US. CSP plants already in the pipeline would generate 4,000 megawatts of power and the companies planning them already have signed contracts with utilities but the twin loss of leases and tax breaks would be a very serious blow. And be clear: That 4,000Mw does not even include the potential for, and the potential harm by the double-whammy to, the rest of the solar industry.

Updated with the news that on Wednesday, the BLM reversed itself and announced it would continue to accept applications for solar energy projects on public lands.

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