Appeals court says BLM did adequate review related to Ivanpah solar project

A three-judge panel at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on May 5 upheld a lower court decision that found that the federal government did an adequate environmental review of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project in California.

Western Watersheds Project had appealed the District Court’s summary judgment in favor of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and project developer BrightSource Energy. The appeals court wrote: “BLM took the requisite ‘hard look’ at the impacts of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (‘Solar Project’) on the desert tortoise. That BLM estimated tortoise populations based on surveys of only adult tortoises did not render its analysis arbitrary. Juvenile tortoises and their eggs were difficult to detect in population surveys, and the vast majority would die from causes unrelated to the Solar Project before reaching reproductive age. BLM’s consideration of impacts to the desert tortoise species, rather than individuals, was appropriate.”

The appeals court panel also said that BLM adequately discussed the Solar Project’s impacts to desert tortoise habitat fragmentation and connectivity. The final environmental impact statement (EIS) qualitatively discussed both fragmentation and loss of connectivity and quantified expected habitat loss. Although not concentrated in a single subsection of the EIS, the analysis allowed for informed decisionmaking and public participation, the court said.

The ruling noted that the BLM also properly reviewed the Eldorado-Ivanpah Transmission Line as a cumulative rather than as a connected project. Because timing precluded BLM from combining the transmission line and the Solar Project in the same EIS, the final EIS adequately incorporated the transmission line by describing its impacts and referring the reader to the draft EIS for the transmission line.

The Western Watersheds Project in January 2013 took the matter to the appeals court. It said the final EIS done by the bureau on this project violates National Environmental Policy Act because it ignores the fact that the project will kill hundreds of protected juvenile tortoises. In fact, including juveniles, up to 1,136 tortoises inhabit the project site and would be killed, injured or displaced by the project, the appeal said.

BrightSource, in a December 2013 brief filed in this case, noted about its 370-MW project: “When fully operational at the end of this year, ISEGS will be the largest concentrated solar energy generator in the United States. It will provide clean, solar-powered electricity to more than 130,000 homes, while eliminating more than 400,000 tons of carbon emissions that would have otherwise been generated to produce the same amount of energy from carbon-based generating plants – the equivalent of taking more than 70,000 cars off the road.”

BrightSource said in that brief that the NEPA review done by the bureau did consider tortoise impacts. “As a result of BLM’s concerns about these and other potential effects, when BLM issued its [record of decision], it imposed a comprehensive set of ‘measures, terms, and conditions’ to ensure that the environmental impacts of the construction and operation of ISEGS would be minimal, while still allowing the Project to produce 370 MW of clean, solar-powered electricity for delivery to customers in California.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.