On January 13, 2021, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released draft amendments to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) and a draft environmental impact statement analyzing the draft amendments. BLM intends the draft amendments will streamline siting of renewable energy development, including solar, wind, and geothermal projects in the Mojave and Colorado/Sonoran regions of southern California.
Approved by BLM in 2016, the DRECP was heralded as a model of landscape-level land use planning. It covers 22.5 million acres, of which more than 10 million are federally managed. BLM developed the plan together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Energy Commission, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. These agencies intended that the DRECP would facilitate streamlined permitting of renewable energy projects while meeting the requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), its state equivalent, and federal and state land use planning requirements.
The DRECP designated geographic areas for different management, including Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs), Special Recreation Management Areas (SRMAs), and general public lands. It also identified lands as California Desert National Conservation Lands to be managed for conservation as components of the National Landscape Conservation System. Further, it established Conservation and Management Actions (CMAs), which are a set of avoidance, minimization, and compensation measures, and allowable and non-allowable actions for renewable energy projects, on BLM-managed lands.
BLM cited President Trump’s Executive Order No. Executive Order 13783, Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth, as well as concerns by local governments and renewable energy associations, as reasons for the amendments. Under its preferred alternative, BLM proposes a variety of changes, including to:
- Modify or eliminate certain ACECs, particularly where they overlap with other management such as wilderness or wilderness study areas;
- Modify or eliminate surface disturbance caps in ACECs and allow caps to be exceeded when mitigation is available;
- Redefine California Desert National Conservation Lands and eliminate a one-percent disturbance cap;
- Increase the areas managed as general public lands and available for renewable energy development;
- Modify management of SRMAs to allow renewable energy development where SRMA is the only land use allocation; and
- Eliminate or modify certain CMAs.
Whether BLM finalizes the amendments, and in what form, remains to be seen. Conservation groups and the California Energy Commissioner have publicly opposed the amendments. BLM must engage in further public process before it may finalize the amendments; BLM must publish a proposed land use plan and final environmental impact statement, which is subject to a 30-day public protest process and 60-day governor’s consistency review.
BLM is accepting public comment on the plan until April 15, 2021. Instructions on how to comment are available here.
If you have further questions, please contact Katie Schroder.