It's a 106-degree Fahrenheit day in the Mojave Desert. Heat devils dance off chocolate-hued Clark Mountain on the horizon. Air-conditioned cars zip along Interstate 15 toward Las Vegas. And inside a chain-link pen covered to keep out predators are scores of rare, threatened, sand-colored desert tortoises.
Their captivity helps show how complicated it is to combat climate change without collateral damage. The foot-long creatures are being removed from their burrows for a project to harvest solar energy in the California desert. Trucks groan down sunbaked roads, cranes pivot with 750-pound mirrors and mechanical post-pounders drive steel pylons into the packed desert floor, destroying their habitat.
Construction of such large-scale green-energy projects has splintered environmental groups. When concern over global warming was at a peak, national organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council threw their support behind industrial-scale wind and solar installations on public land. Now some smaller conservationist groups object to what they consider an environmentally destructive gold rush.
“Of course we need to do solar, but it should go on rooftops or in appropriate places, not the pristine desert," says April Sall, director of the Wildlands Conservancy in Oak Glen, Calif., operator of the state's largest nonprofit preservation system. “We need to tackle warming — but not forget that there are other things at stake."
The Mojave solar project embodies the clash of environmental priorities. The $2.2 billion installation being built by closely held BrightSource Energy Inc. of Oakland, Calif., is designed to power 140,000 homes without emitting greenhouse gases. But it threatens the tortoises. That's why the Western Watersheds Project conservationist group of Hailey, Idaho, sued to stop it in a Los Angeles U.S. court.
The 120-year-old Sierra Club, which calls itself “America's largest and most influential" environmental group, also lobbied for changes to the project's design to protect the tortoises. Yet the 1.4 million-member organization chose not to try to block the plant, says Barbara Boyle, a Sierra green energy specialist.
“Ultimately, we need to jump-start renewables to combat climate change, and large-scale solar has to play a big part in that," Boyle says. However, as it became clear the project was rooting out many more tortoises than projected and as some California chapters urged action, the organization joined a coalition that sued the Department of the Interior in March to block another long-planned Mojave solar project that it says threatens wildlife.
Similar disputes are playing out elsewhere and show a growing concern among green groups and willingness to block large-scale solar and wind projects when the cost to wildlife and habitat seem to outweigh the benefits of fighting climate change. A surge in supplies of cheap, clean-burning natural gas has also begun to undercut demand for more costly green energy.
Including the Mojave project that is relocating desert tortoises, the Interior Department has accelerated construction approval for 26 large-scale solar plants on public lands since 2009, including nine that it cleared in August. The Obama administration has steered $9 billion in stimulus funds from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to 23,000 solar and large-scale wind installations, according to the Department of Energy.
Conservationist and Native American groups sued to halt five other Mojave solar projects. The organizations argue that federal and state authorities conducted inadequate environmental reviews and failed to consult with tribes on sacred sites. The Bureau of Land Management, the solar companies and the state deny the allegations.
Conservationists say it is wrongheaded to rip up the public desert and destroy wildlife habitat when millions of already-degraded acres are available. The Environmental Protection Agency last year identified 80,000 to 250,000 abandoned mine sites that could be used for solar and other renewable energy projects, according to Janine Blaeloch, director of the Seattle- based Western Lands Project, a watchdog group.
“This is the ritual privatization of public lands, turning our deserts into permanent industrial zones that will utterly transform the sites upon which these solar plants are placed," Blaeloch says. “Even if they are dismantled in 50 years, the desert will be unable to restore itself."