Progress can be seen one year into energy mitigation order

Energy development can leave a lasting scar on the land.

Photo by EcoFlight

When energy is produced a footprint is left behind that can last for generations. Even “clean energy” sources leave a significant footprint, often industrializing what were once wild landscapes.

A drive near places like Rifle, CO can give you a glimpse at energy development’s impact first hand—with roads crisscrossing the terrain and very few sightings of the once abundant wildlife that called the area home.

This western CO region is emblematic of what we are seeing around the nation. Over developed and under protected communities are why agencies like the Interior Department are putting in place better practices to conserve our public lands and better protect wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and wild places.

One year ago Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a directive aimed at reshaping how the agency prepares for and manages energy development’s negative impacts. This effort to mitigate the toll all kinds of development takes on the land and local communities – to avoid damaging sensitive lands and resources, and minimize or offset unavoidable impacts – in a way that could help strike a better balance between energy and conservation.

A year later, we are watching the Interior Agency’s plan begin to unfold, but are counting on land managers to better apply the guidance to a number of real life opportunities over the coming months.

Avoiding sensitive lands from the get-go
A key step is avoiding sensitive lands and resources from the start and ensuring those places are conserved through smart management and durable protections. This means that agencies better guide development away from lands rather than set up conflict with wildlife, recreation, cultural or environmental values. An effort in California could serve as a national model for this kind of guided development in the future.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is currently being considered to manage millions of acres in the California desert for both energy development and conservation. The plan covers public and private land and through extensive engagement with counties, local residents, conservation groups and industry, will produce a development plan for the area by identifying suitable areas for wind, solar and transmission development – and just as important, identify areas where development doesn’t make sense.

Part of this plan includes actually protecting some of those places where development doesn’t align with other uses—including hiking and mountain biking, hunting, wildlife viewing, sightseeing, climbing and backpacking. The plan also dives into how energy developers and land managers can work to offset their footprint on the land through other conservation measures.

A strong plan for the California desert would include:

  • Avoidance of all important and sensitive habitat, cultural resources and lands with wilderness qualities, and protection of nationally significant areas for other uses;
  • Lasting and meaningful protection to offset impacts from energy development ; and
  • Guiding needed renewable energy development to appropriate lands adequate for regional power needs, with the least impacts possible.

Moderating impacts
Wherever energy development occurs, there will be impacts – but technologies and practices exist to lessen the footprint. This could include avoiding construction and operation during key wildlife migration periods, building projects using already existing infrastructure like roads and transmission lines, fencing projects off from sensitive species and phasing development within pre-screened energy zones to moderate the boom and bust effects on local economies.

Some of the concepts in this forward-thinking approach are currently being considered through a regional mitigation strategy and development plan being prepared for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone in Nevada.  While important improvements should still be made to the Dry Lake strategy, it has provided an excellent opportunity for the Bureau of Land Management to plan ahead for potential impacts and how to resolve or offset them.

Offsetting energy’s footprint through conservation
Millions of acres of public lands across the West have been identified as lands with very strong wilderness values, or wilderness characteristics. Most of these lands are not being protected for those wild qualities, including rare plant and animal species and quiet and scenic recreation areas.

Secretary Jewell’s plan for offsetting unavoidable impacts from energy development through the protection of other wild places nearby could be promising. This practice consists of “compensating for resource impacts by replacing or providing substitute resources or habitat at a different location than the project area,” according to the Interior Department.

The proposed TransWest Express transmission project is a great opportunity to see mitigation techniques being used to aid conservation.  The line would cross parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. If approved, it would have the capacity to carry enough electricity to power nearly a million homes and could play an important role in supporting renewable energy development in the west.

The potential routes for the project include National Park Service lands, wildlife refuges, national monuments and wilderness study areas. The region is also home to the greater sage-grouse that is at risk of being listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

In addition to needing to find a more acceptable route, it is clear that the impacts from this transmission line will need to be offset on other nearby lands. Millions of acres of lands high quality wild lands and wilderness values should be the first place that land managers look to offset the transmission line’s impacts.

Building a legacy
These examples could help set the stage for better land management efforts and agency practices down the road.  As the secretary’s mitigation policies begin to play out in practice we will continue to push for the strongest conservation measures. The coming year will provide even more opportunities for the agency to follow through with a promise to restore balance between our energy and conservation needs.