Solar, Utility Scale

California Environmental Permitting Still Favors Natural Gas

Those in the energy field often hear how renewables must compete on a level playing field with fossil fuels. To make this concept a reality, experts have an interesting suggestion: Make it as easy to permit solar farms as it is to permit natural gas projects.

Even with the recent rise in renewable energy development in California, it remains a lot easier to obtain permitting for natural gas plants. Despite all the evidence of fossil energy risk to climate, to human health, and to wildlife, it is precisely in environmental permitting that permitting is most stacked in its favor. Solar saves wildlife and birds by displacing more harmful gas-fired electricity — but it has to meet more complex environmental requirements. 

“We spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars in permitting and design in California, purchasing land and trying to get financing — it gets extremely expensive,” said Ausra founder Peter Le Lievra, who no longer develops utility-scale solar. 

Misplaced Environmental Focus

Proving a solar project will be environmentally safe involves years of work and documentation. While it brings lots of work to biologists, report analysts and permitting attorneys — and to attorneys working to prevent solar projects — it slows solar project development to a crawl. 

“The disconnect on wildlife is truly bizarre,” said Scott Frier of his experience developing solar for Abengoa.

“We had to create a very costly and onerous Raven Management Plan at our Mojave site to keep ravens out of the area, as they prey on young endangered desert tortoises. Yet when a nest of ravens were discovered in an abandoned shed on the property, we had to suspend construction activities. The area had to remain undisturbed and monitored by a biologist until the young ravens flew the coup.” 

Both fracking and power plant permits are on a faster track than solar permits, but the simplicity of obtaining a California fracking permit is almost comical. Literally, a fracking permit is a one page form (see below). 

No proof is required of environmental safety, according to the Division of Oil & Gas. 

“No, once you have the bond you’re pretty much good to go. We just send that data to Sacramento and they send us an operator number. You just have to let us know where you’re going to drill.”

A checked box on a form suffices to prove that there is no wildlife near wildcat wells, which are the only kind of wells that need permitting through CEQA. In one project case, a Coyote had been documented eighty years ago, yet developers were not required to document whether or not there were any additional sightings. But for solar projects; extensive documentation and proof is required even five years after the last wildlife sighting. California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) further restricts clean energy development while leaving oil and gas drilling unmolested.

“When I’m proposing a new project and I can show you that there are no tortoises on site but I’ve got a hard baked DRECP map that says there is a tortoise on site — there is no mechanism through the DRECP to rebut that presumption through the demonstration of substantial evidence,” said utility-scale PV permitting attorney Andrew Bell of Marten Law.

Dirty Energy Kills Wildlife

Andy Muir is employed by a private maintenance company to repel on towers to clean out smoke stacks of fossil-fired power plants. One of his regular jobs is removing piles of dead birds from the crown of smoke stacks. In some cases, many birds die by flying into and over stacks, which then damages equipment. 

“A raptor is going to perch on there. And the flare can go off at any time.”

Sovacool estimates 24 million birds are killed by U.S. power plants annually. Fracking kills an additional million. Wide disparity in state-level published data and noncompliance with wildlife protection and environmental pollution laws impedes investigations.

After an earlier estimate of 2 million based on a study of 150,000 birds killed in the San Joaquin Valley, Avian Mortality at Oil Pits in the United States: A Review of the Problem and Efforts for Its Solution now estimates bird deaths in waste pits at approximately 1 million annually.

Pedro Ramirez, a USFWS environmental contaminants specialist referenced in the study, said waste pits are checked less than once a month, yet dead wildlife sinks out of sight within four days. 

When waterbirds land on produced water with even just a sheen of oil, it coats the breast feathers and they ingest it when they preen and are poisoned. “And during nesting season, they return to the nest and sit on the eggs, applying that oil to the shells,” he added. “And it only takes a micrometer amount of oil to kill the embryos.” 

These kinds of indirect causes of bird mortality related to oil and gas development are difficult to monitor or document. There is no way to count birds killed by slow leaks in pipelines, nor from oil drip puddles that form under pump jack leaks from gaskets damaged over time by normal wear and tear.

A major cause of raptor deaths is flare stacks. “When they have gas coming out of the well, they have to burn it off. In the prairie with very few trees and a pipe sticking up, a raptor is going to perch on there. And the flare can go off at any time; they have auto igniters,” Ramirez explained.  

“You either asphyxiate the bird or it ignites immediately.”

All of these immediate impacts don’t include the species-level impacts of climate change due to fossil energy generation. Clearly, California permitting has it backwards: Fossil energy should be harder to permit, not solar.