Solar flip-flops and fish stories

  • Male sockeye salmon.


Summer in the West's deserts always feels a bit chaotic. This summer, it's more than just the seasonal wildfires and strange cactus blooms -- it's also obvious in the federal government's waffling on energy policy.

Clean-energy advocates were stunned on May 29, when the Bureau of Land Management announced that it would not accept any more proposals for new solar power plants on millions of public acres in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. Not only do solar plants make electricity without global-warming emissions; the BLM's deserts are the solar industry's sweet spots. The BLM said its bureaucracy is overwhelmed by more than 100 solar applications, and it needed a two-year time-out to process those proposals and study the potential environmental impacts of solar developments. Other green groups, such as The Wilderness Society, praised the agency for its cautious approach.

Meanwhile, the BLM continued to expedite a great deal of natural gas and oil drilling. Its new 1,603-page final environmental impact study for an expansion of Wyoming's Pinedale Anticline gas field, for example, will permit 3,700 new wells, despite the agency's acknowledgement that this could cause further reductions in deer and sage grouse populations. Some of the West's most powerful politicians -- including Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the U.S. Senate majority leader, and Colo. Rep. Mark Udall -- saw the imbalance and responded by pressuring the BLM into a flip-flop on solar. On July 2, the agency announced that it will continue to accept new applications for solar plants even as it studies their environmental impacts. Rhone Resch, head of the Solar Energy Industries Association, called for the BLM to get moving: So far, he said, the agency's 10,000 employees "have yet to approve a single solar energy project."

Meanwhile, Congress and President George W. Bush have yet to renew the federal tax credits for solar and wind developers. Those credits are due to expire at the end of this year, making the developers -- and all those who are worried about climate change -- nervous.

So the Western Governors' Association had plenty of reasons to focus on energy and climate policies during a late-June meeting in Jackson, Wyo. The group's outgoing president, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, repeated his call for the federal government to "monetize" carbon through a new tax or cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions. Keynote speaker Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric -- a leading manufacturer of wind turbines -- said that regulating such emissions would help the economy by stimulating entrepreneurs. Clean energy, he predicted, "will be the biggest growth industry" for the next 40 years.

Other risks of fossil fuels were evident in late June: Two men were killed in accidents on Wyoming drilling rigs over a two-day span. The victims were Sam Aurther, 56, and Eric Tuscan-Rice Jr., 24. The Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating.

There was mysterious good news in the Northwest: Unexpectedly huge numbers of sockeye salmon migrated from the ocean up the Columbia River system. By the 26th of June, 157,486 sockeye had been counted at Bonneville Dam east of Portland, Ore. -- 10 times as many as had migrated by that day last year. Biologists credited better-than-anticipated mountain runoff and ocean conditions, but they admitted to scientific uncertainty; earlier this year, their prediction that runs of spring chinook salmon would be good didn't pan out. A federal spokesman told the Idaho Statesman, "It's part of a remarkable cycle that's not fully understood and over which we have no control" -- not entirely true, since the feds do have some control over the dams that impede salmon traffic.

Even the good salmon news wasn't entirely good: Almost all those sockeye salmon stay in the main channel of the Columbia. Only a few hundred are expected to make it past dams on a tributary -- the Snake River -- to reach the Salmon River system in central Idaho. Other chinook and coho salmon runs in Oregon and California have been a "disaster" this year, the Statesman reported, and the sockeye remains Idaho's most endangered species.

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