Monday, May 2, 2011

US Stops Mojave Desert Solar Project Over Desert Tortoises

The Obama administration has frozen construction on most of the Ivanpah power project in California's Mojave Desert on grounds that the solar-thermal plant's footprint would disturb more desert tortoises than first suspected.

The Bureau of Land Management this week said a larger number of the threatened tortoises would be killed by the project than originally anticipated in a biological assessment last year by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

BLM said its revised biological assessment merits a redraft of Fish and Wildlife's scientific opinion, which governs how the project developer -- BrightSource Energy, Inc. -- must relocate tortoises under the Endangered Species Act and avoid as much damage as possible.

BLM found plant construction would lead to the loss of 3,520 acres of tortoise habitat, the capture of as many as 274 tortoises and the deaths of as many as 608 of the iconic desert species, far above a previous prediction that said only dozens of the animals would be disturbed.

BLM spokeswoman Erin Curtis said federal biologists simply found more tortoises while they were clearing two of the project's three sites. So the agency requested a new bi-op from FWS, which should be completed by the end of May.

"The suspension notice is in place until we get that bi-op," said Curtis, noting that the previous estimate stemmed from the difficulty of finding the elusive tortoise. "We need to have a plan for where we are going to put them."

Curtis could not say if other solar developments would be affected as none have moved along as far as BrightSource.

"The one positive way it may affect other projects is we have more information now," she said.

The delay for the 392-megawatt project comes just days after the Oakland-based developer announced plans to take the company public (ClimateWire, April 26). The company recently closed a loan guarantee for $1.6 billion from the Energy Department, but it intends to raise another $250 million under the planned initial public offering to help build the plant.

Keely Wachs, a BrightSource spokesman, said the forthcoming redrafted bi-op from Fish and Wildlife will be more "relevant" than the revised BLM assessment. He also insisted the new estimates were off base.

"The projections in the biological assessment are not consistent with the actual numbers of tortoise found on the project site," Wachs said in an email. "It appears that the largest concentrations of tortoise are outside the project and in areas that we designed the project to avoid."

Curtis said construction would continue on Unit 1 of the plant, where fewer tortoises were found. The three plants would be located entirely on federal land.


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