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Senator Feinstein battles solar power plant development in Mojave Desert

In what sounds like a story from the Mirror Universe, California's Senator Diane Feinstein (D) is standing in the way of several solar power plant projects for California. Has Big Oil gotten to her? No, it’s Big Tortoise. The problem is that the best place around for solar power plants is the Mojave Desert, which also happens to be the home of the endangered desert tortoise and several other rare species.

California’s goal is to derive a third of our energy from renewable resources by 2020, and we’re betting a lot on solar power.  Nineteen different companies had submitted proposals for wind farms and solar power plants in a region of the Mojave encompassing the Cattelus lands, which the government purchased in stages from the Catellus Development Corporation beginning in the late 90s.

According to a statement from Senator Feinstein (quoted in the New York Times): “The Catellus lands were purchased with nearly $45 million in private funds and $18 million in federal funds and donated to the federal government for the purpose of conservation, and that commitment must be upheld. Period.”

With that, she started writing a bill to declare 2.5 million acres of the Mojave into a national monument, off limits to development of any kind. That didn’t sit well with the companies, some environmentalists or Governor Schwarzennegger. The tortoises were probably ecstatic, but they’re not very vocal members of her constituency. This was March, 2009, since then, 13 developers have pulled out of projects in the Mojave rather than try to work around the new restrictions.

But there is yet hope. The senator’s latest revision of the bill has scaled the protected area back to 1 million acres. This is still a large area to lose from the standpoint of power generation, but it has allowed some projects to move forward. In addition, the bill notes the potential of over 25 million acres of land owned by the Defense Department. This land includes areas of California, Nevada and Arizona that-- again, quoted in the New York Times (different article than above)-- "have thousands of disturbed acres which cannot be used for training and may be good places for renewable energy development." The plan is for the Department of Defense to conduct an environmental study of those areas in the near future.

Can you believe that? A military solution. She’s definitely going to lose some street cred over that one.

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