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Green Power, Red Lights

Environmental activists have yet to meet an energy project they won’t try to stop.

Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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 “Sputnik” was not the only nostalgic moment in the State of the Union address. When President Obama called on Congress to “invest” in “clean energy breakthroughs” that would “translate into clean energy jobs,” he echoed every president since Nixon. In fact, President Obama himself made the same arguments two years ago, when he signed the stimulus bill.

Green Power, Red Lights

Gary Locke

“Because we know we can’t power America’s future on energy that’s controlled by foreign dictators,” the president said in 2009, “we are taking big steps down the road to energy independence, laying the groundwork for new green energy economies that can create countless well-paying jobs. It’s an investment that will double the amount of renewable energy produced over the next three years.”

Environmental activists applauded the stimulus’s $20 billion investment and joined the president in asserting that renewable energy projects would bring both a cleaner economy and sorely needed jobs. The Sierra Club called the stimulus “a win-win for a strong economy and a healthier environment” and hailed the government’s commitment to “promoting the shift to wind and solar.” 

All of which was long forgotten by December 2010, when the Sierra Club sued California regulators to block a solar energy project in the Mojave Desert—and asserted that stimulus money was the root of the project’s evil.

The Calico Solar Project would be built in the Mojave Desert, 100 miles east of Los Angeles. Twenty-five thousand mirrored dishes, each standing 40 feet high and 38 feet wide, would fill a 4,600-acre plot of public land now controlled by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The project would generate 663.5 megawatts of electricity and connect to the grid by a two-mile transmission line. According to its proponents, the project could power more than 186,000 homes.

The project is subject to myriad federal and state laws, with multiple agencies sitting in judgment. At the state level, the California Energy Commission would license it and lead the environmental reviews required by California law. And at the federal level, Interior controls the rights-of-way needed to construct and operate the facility on public lands and would lead the mandatory federal environmental review. Interior must also take into consideration numerous other federal laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act and consult with federal agencies such as the Department of Energy and Army Corps of Engineers; with state agencies such as the California Energy Commission; with Native American tribes; and with the public at large. Under certain circumstances, many of those agencies have effective vetoes over energy projects such as Calico Solar.

Calico Solar first applied for approval in 2008. Two years later, both California and Interior approved the project as safe, proper, and lawful. Interior found that the project would “provide climate, employment, and energy security benefits to California and the nation,” and that its environmental impacts were sufficiently minimized to justify its approval. And California determined that the project “will ensure protection of environmental quality and assure reasonably safe and reliable operation of the facility,” and that “direct, indirect, and cumulative adverse environmental impacts will be mitigated to the extent feasible”; where full mitigation of environmental effects “is not feasible, overriding considerations warrant acceptance of those impacts.”

Interior and California supported their decisions with strong evidence and thorough analysis. Interior’s decision and environmental report comprise nearly 1,600 pages; California’s, over 700 pages.

Calico Solar, vetted and approved by California and Interior, looked like a perfect example of the renewable energy projects that Congress, the president, and environmental groups all called for. But the Sierra Club, which two years earlier had praised the stimulus’s support for solar and wind power, quickly petitioned the California Supreme Court to block the project .  .  . and blamed the stimulus money for creating incentives for regulators to rush their reviews: “In its rush to help the Project applicant qualify for attractive economic incentives pursuant to the federal .  .  . stimulus legislation, the Energy Commission unlawfully ignored longstanding [state environmental] requirements that required it to protect the environment and listed species.”

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