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Kennedy v. Feinstein - Showdown in the Mojave

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From Greenwire September 8, 2009

RENEWABLE ENERGY: RFK Jr., enviros clash over Mojave solar proposal (09/08/2009)

Colin Sullivan, E&E reporterSAN FRANCISCO -- Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is no stranger to hardball politics.

The environmental attorney has confronted polluters of the Hudson River, been arrested in Puerto Rico for trying to block U.S. Navy training operations and scrapped with oil companies looking to drill in remote parts of Alaska.

Along the way, he has worked for environmental groups large and small, lending his famous name to a burgeoning movement fighting to bring attention to macro-issues like climate change while protecting local wildlife habitat. In 1999, he was named a Time magazine "Hero of the Planet" for his work with the advocacy group Riverkeeper.

But in California's emerging battle over renewable energy development, Kennedy has gained new enemies: fellow environmentalists.

Kennedy, the son and namesake of the late Attorney General and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), is at the center of a nasty dispute among environmental groups, energy developers and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) over the future of federal lands in the sun-soaked Mojave Desert.

The Mojave's 22,000 square miles straddle California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. Given its elevation, heat, aridity and proximity to population centers on the California coast, the region is viewed by many as the ideal venue in North America for building a new generation of large solar-thermal power plants, especially in a state where utilities are required to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2010 and likely 33 percent by 2020.

Among the leaders in a group of aggressive solar prospectors is an Oakland-based company called BrightSource Energy Inc., which has been making a splash lately for its plans to build 2.6 gigawatts of power for California's investor-owned utilities, much of it to be located -- on paper, at least -- in the Mojave Desert.

But some California-based activists are worried that solar developers like BrightSource are getting a free pass in a headlong rush to build clean energy and capitalize on federal stimulus dollars now available for such projects. These activists have enlisted Feinstein to push for the declaration of a national monument in the desert and intend to unveil legislation with the senator in September that would apparently protect 1 million acres in the eastern Mojave to limit development.

Enter Kennedy, who calls the national monument, as it is likely to be drawn, a bad idea. To Kennedy, the instinct to protect local ecosystems has collided with the goals of a progressive national energy policy.

"I respect the belief that it's all local," Kennedy said in an interview. "But they're putting the democratic process and sound scientific judgement on hold to jeopardize the energy future of our country."

But here's the rub: Kennedy has a stake in BrightSource through VantagePoint Venture Partners, a venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley that was instrumental in raising $160 million in financing for the solar startup. Other investors include Chevron Corp., Google.org and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

That Kennedy is a senior adviser at VantagePoint, and an open promoter of BrightSource in public speeches, is an irony not lost on David Myers, an activist who charges Kennedy with shilling for a company intent on using his political clout. To Myers, the lure of profit if BrightSource makes it big is why Kennedy, a cousin of California's first lady, Maria Shriver, wants to stop the national monument before it ever gets off the ground.

"I'm getting pretty tired of BrightSource using their Kennedy connection," said Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy. "BrightSource [is pursuing] the worst projects in the worst locations, but they have the best PR firm, because Robert Kennedy is involved."

Feinstein's monument

Enter Feinstein, a longtime advocate of desert conservation and lead appropriator for the Interior Department in Congress.

Her office is working on a bill to be released this month that some sources said will cut off 1 million public acres in the desert -- up from a previous estimate of 600,000 acres -- to protect a threatened species of desert tortoise and preserve its habitat.

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The rest due to post leght limit

Feinstein, according to several sources who spoke anonymously, is livid about the pace of development on public lands and has bluntly told the solar developers not to challenge her on the national monument designation. Calls to several solar companies seeking comment seemed to bear this out. None of them would take a position on the measure.

Myers has been instrumental in developing the boundaries of the monument, sparking rumors that he is cozy with Feinstein and is dictating the terms of the legislation. The boundaries would stretch from Joshua Tree National Park to Mojave National Preserve, including nearly 100,000 acres of National Park Service lands and 210,000 acres spread across 20 wilderness areas controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

That area includes lands previously owned by Catellus Development Corp., a real estate subsidiary of the former Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroad. Myers insisted that the purchase was made years ago in the name of conservation, a promise that he says Feinstein takes seriously.

And though he would not release details of the bill, Myers said none of the land would come from the federal energy zones marked by the Interior Department for development. Nor does he believe solar companies will have trouble finding land to build on elsewhere in the region.

"The land in the monument is minuscule," Myers said. "There are so many other places where solar is being proposed throughout the state."

But Kennedy disagrees. BrightSource and 19 other companies have petitioned BLM and the California Energy Commission (CEC) to build in an area called Broadwell that would be shut off under the Feinstein bill. Those applications represent about 10,000 megawatts of power, or 30 large-scale solar power plants; and though much of that would never get built, Kennedy says closing down Broadwell is a significant blow to the companies that have invested there under the guidance of federal land managers.

"This area is probably one of the best solar areas in the world," Kennedy said. "All that the solar industry has said is, 'Look, let's respect the robust process in place,' a process that is among the most transparent in the world through the CEC and BLM."

That process is still proceeding. BLM has received 66 applications for solar, totaling 577,000 acres, most of which would be located in the desert, an agency spokesman said. BLM is also processing 93 wind applications, representing 815,000 acres.

Yet the monument bill may have already produced a chilling effect. John White, a renewable-energy policy expert at the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, says the proposal has cast a "shadow" over these projects just as they are vying for financing and federal stimulus dollars only available until 2010. To White, setting aside 1 million acres in the eastern Mojave would mean "less land for solar than for off-road vehicles ... in the very best land that has the highest solar radiation."

"I'm astonished that nobody's said that," said White, who refused to comment further on the political wrangling.

Myers countered that most of those 19 companies have agreed, in private discussions with Feinstein, to build elsewhere. Florida Power & Light Co., Cogentrix Energy LLC and Stirling Energy Systems Inc., among others, have informed Feinstein that they filed "shotgun applications" in the Broadwell area and are more than willing to drop those and find other areas, he said.

"They're fine going outside the monument," Myers said. "BrightSource is the laughingstock of the industry right now."

Kennedy vs. Myers

For his part, Kennedy was unfazed by Myers' allegations or his harsh take on BrightSource, calling the political heat familiar territory, given his family's unique place in U.S. history. In the same breath, he urged Feinstein to take a step back before proceeding with the monument.

"I don't think it does anybody any good to start making personal attacks," Kennedy said. "Let's argue this on the merits. I think if we argue this on the merits, I think BrightSource and 19 other companies are going to win the debate."

Kennedy added that he has a "limited stake" in VantagePoint and denied asking for special treatment through Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ® or anyone else in the state government.

"I don't care enough about BrightSource to compromise my integrity or the national interest," Kennedy said. "I've never talked to anyone about choosing BrightSource over anybody else. I've never asked for any favors from any politician or any regulator or any human being, ever."

In the next breath, Kennedy went negative himself and questioned Myers' relationship with a competitor to BrightSource, Pasadena-based eSolar Inc. Like BrightSource, eSolar is a solar-thermal outfit whose business model is built around reflecting radiation from mirrors into a large tower to convert steam into electricity. Unlike BrightSource, eSolar has no stake or planned projects in the Broadwell region.

Myers, Kennedy pointed out, has his own overlap issues with Silicon Valley money through eSolar. A major donor to the Wildlands Conservancy is the venture capitalist David Gelbaum, who has poured his own funds into eSolar and reportedly owns a fat stake in the company. eSolar would stand to benefit from the national monument, several sources said, because it is not involved in the Broadwell area.

Adding to the fire is Myers himself, who recently appeared at an eSolar press event in person to praise the company for siting projects on industrial lands near power lines in Lancaster, Calif. Yet Myers denies an inappropriate relationship and blamed Kennedy and BrightSource for stoking the rumors.

Gelbaum, Myers said, donated $45 million seven years ago to help acquire the Catellus lands. Myers said the donation and pledge to keep the lands off-limits took place well before BrightSource came into being.

Not stopping there, Myers slammed Kennedy for opposing a wind project off the coast of Nantucket, Mass., and questioned his recent environmental credentials. He said Kennedy is hiding behind the local versus national environmental debate when his real motivation is turning a profit through VantagePoint.

"Bobby Kennedy told us they did not want to see windmills in Cape Cod, that they had to put it all in the California desert," Myers said. "The real story here is, Bobby Kennedy is on the side of major industrial development, and he's against distributed generation."

Kennedy responded in kind. "He is very focused on a narrow piece of land, which I respect," he said of Myers. "All I've ever asked for is a rational process that is democratic, that is transparent, that is robust. That process is in place."

View from the bleachers

Spectators on the sidelines were hesitant to comment on the flare-up between Kennedy and Myers or the shape of the monument designation. Most said they could not take a position on the forthcoming Feinstein bill until it is publicly available, which a spokeswoman said has not been finalized.

Officials at BrightSource, who contacted Kennedy for an interview after receiving a call for this article, said the focus had been placed unfairly on their company when the future of the entire solar industry is at stake.

"The debate over renewable development and desert protection is not adversarial," said Keely Wachs, a spokesman at BrightSource. "We all have the same end goal of protecting the environment."

White, whose organization is meant to bridge industry and environmental groups, said "a little bit of land rush" followed the stimulus frenzy and perhaps led to tense feelings on both sides. He urged the players to learn from the experience, even as he cautioned that the political process has yet to play out.

"It's one thing to introduce a bill and another thing to get it through both houses," White said. "I think that this really is the beginning of a long conversation about where and how to put solar in the desert."

Elden Hughes, a former chairman of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada Desert Committee, blamed BLM for promoting lands bought from Catellus years ago and said officials there should have respected a promise that those lands be conserved. He said BLM has only recently changed its tune.

Calling BLM officials "two-faced SOBs," Hughes said, "For some months, they were telling us they were protecting the land, while at the same time they were taking developers out there."

BLM spokesman John Dearing would only say that the agency's job is to process applications. BLM has no right to block any entity from seeking a right of way on the Catellus lands, he said, adding that the agency will pursue "high-level reviews" for any proposed impacts to lands meant for conservation.

"They might want to steer away from that area," Dearing said of the developers. "But they're not prohibited from making an application."


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So we got the Marines, the Army, Feinstein, and Kennedy.... All vying for ownership of the Mojave.


We seem to have ended up fighting in the heavyweight bout of the century. It's like a 4 y/o 47 lb kid going up against Mojammed Ali. :banana: :banana: Why even bother with the fight? After they get done with their politics we'll be extinct. :busted:

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Let them all fight for it. They will be tied up in court for years. I will keep riding !:busted::banana::thumbsup::banana:

Hopefully we are throwing our hat in the ring too just to really slow things down.

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Renewable energy plan creates rift

By Andrea Stone, USA TODAY

September 8, 2009

AMBOY, Calif. - The morning heat hits triple digits as a whiptail lizard darts below a creosote bush near Route 66. Gazing across the desert valley, power company executives, environmentalists and federal land managers stand beneath a cloudless sky and argue over the landscape. PG&E project manager Alice Harron says she is "comfortable" with the solar power plant her utility wants to build on government land here along 4 miles of the Mother Road that connected Chicago and Los Angeles long before the interstate system.

David Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy is not. Renewable energy projects such as this one - which could power 224,000 homes - sound good in theory, he says, but if they tear up pristine vistas, they're not "green."

President Obama wants a "clean-energy economy" that relies on renewable sources such as solar and wind power instead of coal and oil. He wants to put these new utilities on federally owned lands like this stretch of the Mojave Desert, one of the sunniest places on Earth.

The administration wants to lead the way by taking advantage of its vast holdings, which account for 20% of all land in the USA, mostly in the West.

That idea is creating a rift among environmentalists, who favor renewable energy but are at odds over where to produce it. Some are willing to compromise with utility companies to build large power plants on remote federal lands to accelerate the transition to clean energy.

Purists are dead set against disturbing pristine landscapes.

Obama's goal is to meet 25% of the nation's energy needs from renewable resources by 2025. Today, the figure is 11.1%, according to the Department of Energy.

One purist is Myers, who worries that the government will industrialize the desert with acres of solar mirrors, trampling treasured landscapes.

Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) counter that large,

centralized projects are needed to speed the shift to non-polluting energy.

"It's hard, because many of us have fought to protect the very lands" that could be affected, says Johanna Wald of the NRDC.

Starting 'a new beginning'

In a wood-paneled Washington conference room, under the words "America the

Beautiful," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says he runs "the real department of energy."

After decades of allowing private companies to lease public lands for coal and oil, "we have started a new beginning" to make room for solar mirrors and wind turbines, he says. As with the older leases, operators would pay to use the land.

Salazar has designated 24 tracts in six Western states as possible solar project sites. There is none on federal lands now.

The Interior Department will open offices to eliminate a five-year backlog of applications. There are 158 pending solar projects on 1.8 million acres of public land. If all went through, they could power 29 million homes.

Not all will be approved, Salazar says, because of environmental and other concerns. Still, the White House plans to streamline approval for at least 10 solar plants it hopes will create 50,000 jobs by 2011.

Nearly half the solar proposals are in the Mojave Desert, home to the threatened desert tortoise, Indian petroglyphs and an intact stretch of Route 66, the historic highway dotted with vintage diners and derelict gas stations.

Not far from the iconic Roy's Motel and Diner, PG&E consultant Scott Galati tells environmentalists that surveys reveal no rare plants or threatened species on a planned solar site. A nearby rail line and access road are proof, he says, the land is hardly pristine.

Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy says an abandoned farm farther from Route

66 would be a better choice. PG&E's Harron says it is privately owned and would be difficult to acquire.

The great advantage of government land, she says, is how much of it there is and the relative ease and cost-effectiveness of building projects on public property.

Too easy, says Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. In a letter to Salazar last month, she said she was "deeply concerned" about a "bias under which solar developers believe they are more likely to receive a permit to build their projects on pristine public lands than on previously disturbed private lands."

Myers fears taxpayers are subsidizing inappropriately large-scale projects. He'd prefer a focus on rooftop solar panels and other small-scale solutions in urban areas that would reduce the clout of big energy companies.

Wald, the NRDC lawyer, says the government is taking a balanced approach. She spent 35 years battling the oil and gas industry and now is working with them to find appropriate sites for wind and solar plants. She agrees that energy self-sufficiency is important but says Myers' approach would take too long. "Even if (some environmentalists) don't like it," she says, large-scale projects "are going to happen."

Monumental roadblock?

Feinstein wants to establish a national monument that would bar energy development on hundreds of thousands of acres of desert between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. The area includes former railroad land the Wild-lands Conservancy donated to the government a decade ago.

If Congress establishes the monument, PG&E and 22 other companies would have

to build someplace else.

Across the border in Nevada, Feinstein's Democratic colleague Harry Reid is taking a different approach. The Senate majority leader supports a proposed wind turbine farm on federal land near Searchlight, his hometown.

That has some of his neighbors livid. Many say they fled to the quiet desert town to get away from California's massive, densely packed wind farms.

They fear the same in Searchlight, where the tallest structure is the 150-foot flagpole at Terrible's Casino.

Duke Energy wants to put up 95 wind turbines with blades that reach 415 feet off the ground. Though few in number compared with older, less efficient wind farms - some with thousands of turbines - that's still too many for some people.

"It's going to ruin our way of life," says Verlie Doing, 85, a friend of Reid's late mother. Doing owns the Nugget Casino.

Twelve miles south in the Nevada town of Cal-Nev-Ari, retired energy company

electrician Robert Carty supports the turbines. He sees "the global picture" of climate change and calls opponents "CAVE people - citizens against virtually everything."

Across the Mojave in Lucerne Valley, Calif., where neighbors are arguing over a proposed solar plant on 516 acres, county employee Andrew Silva sighs.

"Folks in the East," he says, "don't necessarily recognize how complex and beautiful and diverse the desert is."



Helen Baker


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It makes me think of the tag line to the rather unmemorable movie Alien vs. Predator.

"Whoever wins... We lose."

Sad but true.

Carry on...

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Tell me what exactly is wrong with Nuclear energy?

Seems all of these solar farms are going to damage the ecosystem more than anything else. They are using a large (huge) footprint and killing everything on its property.

I still want to see the study that says OHV's are the cause of all of these problems. I want to see the actual scientific numbers of our pollution, damage, and killing of native species compared to other groups that use the land.

I'm so tired of listening to Feinstien...been listening to her for what seems to be my whole life. I can remember my dad bitching about her 25 years ago. Oh well...seems the idiots in California outnumber me since she continues to get re-elected.

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california needs term limits for this reason!

also our legislators should be part time , with part time pay.

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We don't have a chance whether the cards are dealt from the top or bottom of the deck.

Ride while you can.


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Most of the lands they are haggling over is in the east Mojave, Not much of it

is used by the OHV community. Figure Amboy to Needles, Route 66...East of the Military bases

The sky is not falling, We just need to make sure they keep their promise of

preserving the WEMO/NECO routes that we currently have.

Most of it is designated Limited use, National Parks and Wilderness already

Our main concern is still Johnson Valley

The good thing, is some enviros are shifting their priorities from us and fighting their

own principles, that is being green. The posted articles are good news, It shows

weakness, infighting and they may just trump themselves.

Cant have your cake and eat it to


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