On Thursday, all five county Planning Commissioners likely will vote to approve SunPower Corporation’s conditional-use permit for a 250-megawatt California Valley solar ranch, which will have multiple unmitigable impacts for species living on the Carrizo Plain. Soon, the task will be repeated for the Topaz Solar Farm.
For development projects, the California Environmental Quality Act triggers a protocol of analysis and public disclosure that evaluates potential environmental impacts. What will a project’s impact be — none, less than significant, less than significant with mitigation or potentially significant (and unmitigable)? If any answer but the first occurs, an environmental impact report is usually done.
The California Environmental Quality Act states: “Each public agency shall mitigate or avoid the significant effects on the environment of projects that it carries out or approves whenever it is feasible to do so.” The meaning of “avoid” is clear, but what does that weasel word, “mitigate,” really mean? And who determines if “it is feasible to do so?”
The process of alleviating or lessening damage to a species is called “mitigation.” But the dictionary says that “alleviate, lessen and mitigate” are figurative words, meaning they are not to be taken literally. Thus, a mitigation measure might not actually mitigate the severity of impacts to which a species is subjected.
For example, the short biological resource “surveys” performed by environmental impact report consultants for both proposed Carrizo Plain solar projects are done mostly to determine presence or absence of a particular species. They are not detailed life history studies.
Without such details, there is no guaranteed way of knowing whether a particular mitigation will work for or against a species. Therefore, each mitigation measure is really an allowed legal gamble on the future of a particular animal or plant species subject to the mitigation process.
During recent public hearings, commissioners have verbally wrestled many significant unmitigable impacts into submission, in effect causing them to say “uncle” by declaring them “less than significant.” Through “compensatory mitigation” (for example, by purchasing private farmlands to substitute for habitats made unlivable by the project for certain animal or plant species), developers are allowed to buy their way out of some unmitigable impacts using California Environmental Quality Act and Planning Commission guidance to justify approval. More weasel words?
If those methods aren’t feasible, commissioners have one final California Environmental Quality Act option: adopt a “statement of overriding considerations” wherein they may approve a project, without mitigations or alternatives, by simply declaring that certain specific conditions exist and that these outweigh a given project’s unmitigated impacts. More weasel words.
And this ruse is exactly what the California Energy Commission did on Sept. 29 in order to approve the 709-megawatt Imperial Valley Solar Project that had multiple unmitigable impacts. It claimed that California’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through renewable energy projects is the overriding consideration. A recent Tribune article stated that on Feb. 24, planning commissioners will discuss “the language they will have to adopt in order to justify” a project with “significant environmental consequences” (“Solar firm proposes a compromise,” Feb. 16). The language includes “reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the state’s percentage of renewable power.”
I predict that the California Energy Commission precedent set five months ago will be used by the Planning Commission to “grease the skids” for Board of Supervisors approval next month.
An earlier Tribune headline read: “Project has planners ‘conflicted’ ” (Feb. 4). But its article said: “none of the commissioners showed interest in denying the project outright or sending it out of the county.” And the commission’s chairwoman, Carlyn Christianson, stated: “I am in agreement with people who are ready to get going on this.”
The environmental impact reports for both proposed solar photovoltaic projects are, perhaps, the largest ever submitted to our county. I cannot recall any prior county project with so many unmitigable impacts wherein planning commissioners, much less a chairperson, signaled their likely votes weeks before their extended public hearings ended.
As a professional biologist, I believe all life is precious. If severe impacts can’t be eliminated, then a project should not be allowed or, as the California Department of Fish and Game suggests, it ought to be located where there are fewer or no significant impacts.
The California Energy Commission’s “overriding consideration” precedent has enabled us to enter fantasyland, for, in order to save our planet, we’re now able to ignore the very environmental impact reports formerly required by the California Environmental Quality Act to save our planet.
The House of Representatives recently voted to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Will ignoring environmental impact reports be any less stupid?
Richard J. Krejsa is an emeritus professor in biological sciences, Cal Poly, a former 5th District supervisor and the co-founder of ECOSLO.