Obama’s record on Western environmental issues

  • Photo illustration, Barack Obama in Death Valley.

    Istock, White house photo office
  • President Barack Obama, looking slightly uncomfortable in a cowboy hat a supporter handed him during a campaign stop in 2007.

    LM Otero, AP
  • Jared Blumenfeld, EPA Region 9 administrator, addresses the crowd at a rally outside EPA headquarters in San Francisco last January that called for environmental justice for Kettleman City and other communities.

    Bradley Angel
  • U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar speaks during a public meeting on offshore drilling in April 2009. A year later, the Obama administration would propose increasing offshore drilling just days before the Gulf oil spill.

    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Desert tortoise pens at the Ivanpah site in the Mojave Desert.

    Bureau of Land Management
  • An artist's rendering of solar panels on the site.

    Brightsource Energy

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That's no comfort to Mojave Desert conservationists, many of whom object to the siting of the fast-tracked projects. Solar Millennium's 1,000-megawatt Blythe Project on California's border with Arizona sits partially on microphyll woodlands, small-leaved tree communities that provide food and shade for Colorado Desert birds like phainopepla and the loggerhead shrike. BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Project -- a 400-megawatt array of mirrors that focus the sun's heat on "power tower receivers" -- would cover seven square miles between two segments of the Mojave National Preserve; Suckling's group made a pact with BrightSource to relocate dozens of desert tortoise and buy up new land for habitat.

Lawsuits against Interior have accumulated along with the permits: The Quechan Tribe won an injunction in December to halt Tessera Solar's 709-megawatt Imperial Valley Solar, accusing Interior of skipping steps in the permitting process. Western Watersheds Project has leveled the same charge against Interior over BrightSource's Ivanpah and has sued to interrupt its construction.

But those projects began their long permitting processes back when renewable energy on public lands was still in Wild West mode, with nothing but lease applications and protests to guide it. "The Bush administration was not interested in clarifying how wind and solar was going to be developed on public lands," says Chase Huntley, The Wilderness Society's energy policy adviser in D.C. "They were single-mindedly focused on how to get more oil and gas development done as expeditiously as possible." So the solar projects that were moving through the queue "were largely the cards the (Obama) administration was dealt. They reflect the decisions that were made prior to any discussion of responsible development.

"We're optimistic that the lessons learned will be applied to future decisions that will set the rules of the road for wind and solar," he says.

Other environmentalists are less sanguine. "We've been hammering on them that they absolutely have to be more rational about where they put these solar projects, that they have to avoid sensitive resources," says Barbara Boyle, a senior analyst for the Sierra Club focused on renewable energy development. And yet two of the 24 solar energy zones designated in the environmental study sprawl across important corridors for desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. Those 24 zones would cover 670,000 scattered acres, but a "preferred alternative" in the study "also opens up 21 million acres of land for solar development," Boyle says, "which is ridiculous. An aggressive plan for utility-scale solar to provide significant renewable energy in the West between now and 2020 would likely require no more than 200,000 acres on public land."

The BLM's Brady stresses that the draft study is just that -- a draft -- and that many adjustments will be made to the solar zones as public comments come in. "We have not ignored the input, the valuable input, that we received from the environmental community," he says. "Many people would prefer to have smaller, distributed projects," such as eSolar's 5 to 10 megawatt solar thermal generators, one of which sits on private land near Lancaster, Calif., and yet "there is no way a state like California is going to meet its goal of generating 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources without utility-scale projects. It's just not possible.

"We are, however, very interested in finding degraded land for those projects," Brady says. "And we will continue to look for it."

Interior has also signed agreements with the state of California to formalize the environmental review and permitting process for renewable energy projects. And Salazar has promised to include state and federal land managers more fully in the process of locating new transmission facilities. "There have been key structures built up for engaging the environmental community and state officials in renewable energy development," Huntley says. "This capacity was not in place before."

Just a few days before Christmas 2010, Salazar and BLM Director Abbey staged a media event to announce the end of the moratorium on designating wilderness study areas, which Gale Norton, who led Interior through Bush's first term, had imposed as part of a 2003 deal with then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt. Peter Metcalf, the CEO of Black Diamond Outdoor Equipment, was on hand, reminding the audience that outdoor recreation creates jobs, too.

"For years, those of us who are part of the outdoor industry have recognized that the tired old sound-bite debate of jobs versus preservation was an insult to the 6.5 million Americans whose jobs were dependent on this active outdoor recreation economy," he said. "It's as if we and the $730 billion we contribute to the economy didn't exist."
Besides, he argued, those jobs endure: "Hunting and fishing don't go away once a gas field is exhausted."

The event had echoes of this administration's America's Great Outdoors initiative, in which federal officials held "listening sessions" around the country to discuss conservation. It was hard to get a bead on the initiative's point; the memo Obama issued in April 2010 defined it only vaguely ("Reconnect Americans, especially children, to America's rivers and waterways, landscapes of national significance, ranches, farms and forests. ..."). But it made an unassailable argument -- that recreation matters, to people and the economy -- and the listening sessions allowed conservation-minded people to interact directly with high-ranking administration officials, including Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson.

During that tour, Jackson came to the chronically poor and park-starved South Los Angeles County city of Compton to announce that EPA had decided the Los Angeles River would be granted full protection as a navigable river under the Clean Water Act. At the end of her talk, she waded into the rehabilitating creek with a group of students to test the water quality.

Did it mean anything? Certainly not in quantifiable policy terms, the way articulating a climate policy at Copenhagen or at Cancún this past December might have. It was no substitute for upgrading the polar bear's status on the Endangered Species List from "threatened" to "endangered," which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to do in December -- a move NWF's Kostyack laments as a lost teachable moment: "It would have been a chance for the administration to step out and talk about sea ice," he says. "We didn't get that."

But visits from Salazar and Jackson were teachable moments, too. And while something as bold as listing the polar bear as endangered would have provoked a fury of backlash aimed at Fish and Wildlife and its new director, Dan Ashe, community outreach can't be easily undone.

You could almost accuse Obama of mounting a stealth campaign to incrementally nick away at our national environmental problems in the "bite-sized" pieces with which he has now promised to tackle national energy policy. It does not make cable news when Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation and EPA band together on a program to promote sustainable communities and environmental justice; there was no celebration in the streets when Fish and Wildlife announced its Prairie Pothole Landscape Conservation Cooperative on behalf of migrating waterfowl. But such initiatives may have a more lasting salutary effect on public health and wildlife than a hundred other sexier campaigns.

Obama and his staff have "set up the potential for significant and meaningful change," says Jim McElfish, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute. "We'll see in a couple of years whether it takes."

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