Tuesday, July 26, 2016 | 2 a.m.
In its final months, the Obama administration is racing to complete a far-reaching environmental initiative that could forever alter one of the wildest places left in California.
A giant energy plan for the Mojave Desert attempts to reconcile two contradictory goals: fast-tracking big solar and wind installations across 10 million acres of public lands to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change, and preserving the region's natural beauty and ecological integrity.
Solar and wind developers say they will need broad expanses of public land to build their big installations. But scientists say those large-scale developments will permanently scar the desert landscape, destroy native plants and wildlife, and, to top it off, may not do for the environment what they were intended to do.
More than seven years in the making, the joint state-federal Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is driven by President Obama's promise to install 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy on federal land and by the state's ambitious new effort to get half of California utilities' electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
The administration's goal is to deliver the equivalent of almost a quarter of California's current daily electrical generating capacity. That's enough to provide power to 3.28 million homes, according to solar industry estimates.
The plan attempts to correct mistakes made early in the Obama administration, when the California desert was opened to large-scale solar development by the Bureau of Land Management, the current plan's chief architect, without taking into account the broader environmental impacts on the desert. Unlike the National Park Service, whose mission is conservation, the bureau encourages multiple use of public lands, including mining, hunting, recreation, logging, grazing, oil and gas drilling, and renewable energy production.
The bureau's plan is to set aside 388,000 acres, or more than 600 square miles, of public land in the Mojave for renewable energy development and make another 842,000 acres available if needed. In all, nearly 2,000 square miles of desert could be developed.
The plan also sets aside 5 million acres, or 7,812 square miles, for conservation.
Administration officials are expected to sign off on the plan this summer. After that, only litigation or an act of Congress could prevent it from going forward. While the state is a partner in the effort, only federal land will be developed.
The California desert plan is "an environmental story in the United States that hasn't received the attention that it's owed,'' said Rebecca Hernandez, an earth systems scientist at the University of California at Davis. It "has really gone under the radar.''
Outside its three national parks at Death Valley, Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve, the desert has been long considered a scrub wasteland. For decades it's been a repository for sprawling military bases, off-road vehicle playgrounds and booming desert cities, divided by three interstate highways. It's been mined and grazed for a century and a half. And, with a solar intensity that rivals the Sahara, the California desert is now seen as a natural place for renewable energy development.
Despite these human incursions, the desert remains one of the most intact ecosystems in the continental United States.
Scientists have come to understand that the desert is a major carbon sink, whose ancient, deeply rooted plants are a slow-motion machine for drawing carbon from the air and burying large stores of it underground in stable form.
They have shown that deeply rooted desert plants suck huge amounts of carbon from the air and bury it in the earth, where it interacts with soil calcium to form the white desert crusts known as caliche. When these soils and plants are disturbed, this natural process of carbon sequestration is disrupted.
In other words, critics say, building big solar and wind plants on undisturbed desert soils to fight climate change could backfire.
"Globally, there's probably about as much carbon bound up in (desert soil) as there is in the atmosphere,'' said soil biologist Michael Allen, director of the University of California at Riverside's Center for Conservation Biology and a pioneer in studying desert carbon sequestration. "It's a very large pool.''
Opposition to the administration's plan also comes from the solar industry. In a last-ditch effort to make changes, industry groups warned in a memo this month that the initiative will make it "impossible'' to achieve the administration's climate goals — including those that came out of last year's landmark Paris climate accord — because it leaves too little public land available for development.
"California is home to the best solar radiance in the world,'' said Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-Scale Solar Association, and the Bureau of Land Management "is on the threshold of locking it off against development in perpetuity.''
Environmental groups that support the administration's plan fear the desert will be under significant threat from solar development without the government's protection of 5 million acres.
Without such protection, said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, "the public lands will yet again be the place a lot of these large projects go.''
The plan was designed to avoid a repeat of actions taken in the Obama administration's early days, when it handed $50 billion in subsidies to renewable energy developers as part of the economic stimulus that followed the 2008 crash. The initiative set off a desert land rush by those hoping to cash in on the government money and the vast tracts of available