Desert Issues

Desert Survivors Issues Report, August 8, 2008

In the Spring of 2008 Desert Survivors created a policy on energy development in the desert. Government agencies and private corporations are proposing solar power and wind developments in the desert at a phenomenal rate. Projects are on the drawing boards for dozens of square miles of public land, and government policies are being written to facilitate this development and to curb environmental review. Hundreds of miles of power lines are also being proposed. Things are moving too far too fast.

It is necessary to protect the desert from this threat. Governments and corporations have a history of planning energy developments of dubious value in the desert, and the mess is to be seen everywhere, from the nuclear groundwater of Hanford in Washington to the putrid bathtub of Glen Canyon to the ruined oil shale country of Utah and Colorado. We are questioning whether the meager output of solar cells and solar steam plants is worth the degradation of the desert that will surely follow. There is evidence that it would be more efficient to promote solar and wind in urban and already-developed rural areas where the power will be used.

Below is our new policy, entitled Desert Survivor Policy on Energy Development in the Desert Landscape.

To read an article describing the problem, scroll down or click link to Is Solar Power the New Glen Canyon?

To get a different take on the possibilities of solar, scroll down or click link to find Large Solar Plants Versus Local Control.

With the heavy push to bum-rush these plants through and the enormous government subsidies involved, this question of mega-solar plants in the desert will be with us for long time. Watch this space for more information as we tackle this issue head on. A coalition is now forming that will challenge these plants at the grass-roots level. Stay tuned.

Desert Survivor Policy on Energy Development in the Desert Landscape

Effective Date: May 13, 2008

Desert Survivors supports and encourages efforts to develop comprehensive energy strategies based upon the principles of sustainability; radical reduction of energy consumption from current levels; non-destructive, non-nuclear production; low carbon emission; and the local production, consumption and control of energy.

In keeping with Aldo Leopold’s 1949 land ethic, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise,” Desert Survivors will not support current or future development of large scale traditional or alternative energy production facilities in the deserts of the American Southwest or Northern Mexico.

This fragile desert landscape and its many sensitive eco-systems is already enduring unprecedented and highly destructive exploitation from urban sprawl; industrial, agricultural and residential development; military abuse; water appropriation; an ever expanding energy, communication, and transportation infrastructure; large scale native species depletion or replacement; and ever increasing and highly destructive ORV abuse. It is not appropriate to add additional large scale energy projects to the desert’s burden. While human use of the desert for energy production projects may be highly appealing, the cumulative effect of such large scale projects is demonstrably harmful to the desert. Any new energy policy that Desert Survivors could support must turn away from historical patterns of large scale landscape sacrifice for the sake of distant cities to one based upon sustainable local production, consumption and control.

Desert Survivors will oppose attempts by private capital or government to use legitimate fear of an energy crisis or global warming to further sacrifice our deserts for quick profits or to support current irrational and harmful energy policies. Where we cannot prevent further destruction of the desert landscape we will work to mitigate its most harmful and long lasting impacts.

This policy is in keeping with our General Policy Statement of 1992 and is intended to provide formal guidance to be used for all appropriate decision making by the organization. It is in effect for two years from the date of signature by the President unless formally modified or rescinded prior to that date.

Steve Tabor, President
Desert Survivors


Is Solar Power the New Glen Canyon?

By John R. Moody and Steve Tabor

Way, way back in 1992 Desert Survivors developed a general policy statement to focus and guide its efforts to protect our desert lands. We committed ourselves to the preservation of those lands, their habitats, wildlife, resources etc. We went on to articulate things that we specifically supported, and specific things or activities that we opposed. Our criteria for opposition was that activities such as mining, grazing, expanded vehicle access, suburbanization, power corridors, and military expansion were inherently harmful to the desert landscape and to the life it held. But, we also recognized that we could not stop or even anticipate the many human activities that might harm the desert. Thus, where we could not prevent harm to the desert we determined to support those policies that would at least reduce adverse impacts. So we took our stand, and committed ourselves to protect the desert from the abuses of our own society.

In the intervening years we have not seen fit to swerve much from our mission to speak for and to protect the desert, nor has our opinion of the harmful effects of the activities that we committed to oppose changed. If anything, we find that the potential threats to the desert have steadily increased, while the voices willing to speak out for it have steadily slipped away. Those forces in our society that only see the desert as natural capital to be used and abused for quick profits, recreation or connivance have steadily increased their power within our society and their pressure upon the desert landscape.

For those of us who can remember the Mojave of even thirty or forty years ago it is now mostly depressing to venture out and into its once raw vastness. The desert as a free living landscape with its many healthy eco-systems is collapsing, collapsing under the weight of our ever expanding industrial society. It is a slow death that we witness, an unnecessary one, one that should sadden us all.

Today, tomorrow the biggest threat to the integrity of the desert may well be the mad rush to industrial scale solar energy power. In response, Desert Survivors has developed a new policy directed specifically at energy development in the desert. It is a strong stand, a controversial one, and one that will not be well received or understood by much of our society, even by many of our friends. But, it is our sincere belief that if we do not take such a stand now, we cannot in good faith claim to love, to protect, or to speak for the desert.

So on May 13, 2008, our Board of Directors voted in and our president, Steve Tabor, signed into existence a new policy entitled Desert Survivors’ “Policy on Energy Development in the Desert Landscape”. Our board of directors struggled and worried the issue for months before it was ready. We also shared drafts of it with other members of our environmental community and received back nothing but supportive and/or appreciative comments.

It is a strong simple and uncompromising statement of commitment to the desert. But, we are facing a critical moment when such a stand has become necessary. Even a glance at the front pages of today’s newspapers reveals a rising hysteria at the ever increasing cost of fuel and the effects of that very fuel consumption upon the ecosphere. Those journals too, bear witness to the failure of our social, political and economic ability to sensibly and rationally avert an unrolling tragedy for both Nature and our society.

The Western model of modern industrial organization has consequences for the Earth. And to date, its impact on Nature has been catastrophic and in every way promises to continue so. Huge landscapes and ecosystems have been radically changed and/or destroyed, just as a once wide array of human societies and cultures have been ravaged or simply erased. This Western industrial model has also been unquestionably the most responsible cause for the “6th mass extinction” episode upon this Earth.

The single most important factor enabling this unprecedented assault upon the Earth may be our perfection of fossil fuel as the engine for the Industrial Revolution, now 200 years old. Today, we, the leader of the Western industrial-technological world consume roughly twenty-five percent of the world’s energy production (for only about five percent of its population). And sadly, that industrial model and its effects have now become global. A new report by the oil giant BP indicates that world wide consumption of primary energy (oil, gas, coal, nuclear, and hydro-power) is steadily increasing, with China and India now responsible for 1/2 and 1/3 of that increase respectively.

And, what are our political leaders calling for? Not a decrease in consumption, not limits, not a roll back of the GDP to something that is sustainable or committed to the commonweal, not conservation, not the protection or restoration of an already reeling ecosystem; rather they are trumpeting for ever greater development and access to cheap energy, regardless of the environmental, ecological or social costs. We now push other nations by war or politics to produce ever more oil to assuage our gluttony. At home the enablers now openly call for a revival of the nuclear option and the sacrifice of our coasts, even the ANWAR, for our “energy security.” These efforts, even if pursued with unprecedented vigor could not result in any appreciable energy increase for decades, yet would most definitely ensure almost instantaneous ecological damage. While we need reason we get demagoguery and the rhetoric and the cant of junkies and their sycophants.

We do not have endless non-renewable energy resources, and the renewable sources that our children will be dependent upon cannot support the industrial societies we have manufactured. Any faith-based hopes of technological miracles or imminent rapture are mere rationalizations of denial. These are the facts that we will live with and perish with. We are not fools; we already feel the malignant symptoms of our addiction in the fouled air and rising temperature of our oceans.

Global warming and its resultant climate change is a truth, it amply explains what we see happening of late, and it appears to be an adequate tool for predicting the future. So we should treat it as a truth that we cannot afford to deny. But, it is just one of the many consequences of our industrial system. We have benignly accepted the mass devastation of our home to this point because it just felt so good. Now global warming threatens changes that might not be so very comfortable or ignorable. And, simplistic techno-fixes that focus upon maintaining our absurd lifestyles and systems of production, consumption and transportation, or that attempt to re-engineer Nature are and will remain as much a part of the problem as Chinese coal furnaces are today.

So now besides the scramble for more oil and coal, and the revival of the nuclear option; we also face a race to develop the desert as a super energy engine to feed our addiction. A solar industry has laid claim to the desert, both in the American Southwest and even in the Sahara. The BLM is currently processing approximately 130 applications, affecting over 600,000 acres of the California desert for industrial scale solar energy projects. And recently, on NPR we were blessed to hear the solar industry talking heads trumpeting what they could do with just ninety square miles of the California desert. Not surprisingly, on June 16th in Riverside the DOE and BLM began conducting formal public meetings to address a new programmatic environmental impact statement to better streamline additional industrial development of the desert in six western US states; Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. And sadly, at the Sacramento public meeting on June 18th all of the environmental groups speaking up appeared totally supportive of this new wave of industrial exploitation. It was like watching a replay of the Hetch-Hetchy and Glenn Canyon disasters. David Brower and Ed Abbey must be rolling in their graves.

Enough! We are tired of the experts and the shills endlessly telling us that if we will just sacrifice a little more of this Earth we can have our cake and eat it too. We are not so naive as to believe that we can have a static Garden of Eden, nor do we desire one. We know that life is about change, that’s what evolution is all about. But we, in just 200 years have accelerated a mass extinction that denies the evolutionary hopes of many, many fellow species and those consequences will continue to unroll for millions of years to come. Many of our fellow passengers, even the familiar landscapes of our own evolution have or are fast blinking out. Enough!

We do not oppose solar or any other safe, sustainable and renewable energy technology, per se. We in fact strongly believe that such technologies and methods of energy production are critical for our, and the planets health. But, we most stand up and speak out against the continued industrial models being pursued that are so damaging to our Earth and to our societies.

With this new policy we are revalidating and hopefully revitalizing Desert Survivors’ commitment to protecting the desert as a natural, complete, and living landscape from any attempt to destroy or further debase its natural integrity. We don’t need to develop alternatives for LA; we need to help them to develop sustainable alternatives by standing firm in a commitment to preserving as much of the natural integrity of this Earth, and specifically the North American deserts, as we can.

Large Solar Plants Versus Local Control

By Steve Tabor

The current push for large solar power plants must be seen in the context of a competition between large corporate energy combines and the control of resources at the local level. The model of large generating facilities covering many acres under the control of a large corporation is a throwback to the era of privately-owned and -controlled energy sources like coal, petroleum and natural gas. This model was designed for maximum efficiency in combustion of the resource, and in provision of inputs — the energy source itself, plus water, combustion machinery, cooling apparatus (e.g. towers), and control mechanisms. Large facilities however are rarely of use without the transmission of power across vast distances to the largely urban markets where it is sold. Thus the extra expense of huge power lines criss-crossing the country, designed to enable the owners of the lines and of the electricity to move the power around to whatever bidder is willing to pay the most and to keep the profits to themselves.

In contrast to this, the sun is not a resource limited to a particular location where oil, natural gas or coal must be mined. Electricity can be generated from the sun anywhere, so long as it shines long enough and often enough to make the construction worthwhile. Ideal locations for solar generating facilities are the “sun cities” of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Reno and El Paso. Construction of facilities there would eliminate the practice of bulldozing wide areas of desert land, thereby destroying it. Such a practice would make new transmission lines obsolete and would also eliminate the need for mining groundwater from desert locations. Power would be provided directly to households, and there is plenty of water available for the generating process in urban areas.

So why is the same old megawatt model now being promoted for solar by major corporations and their acolytes in government? Because the mega-project requires ownership and control by a large organization, like a corporation or a government agency, and it denies the general population control over the sun and its use. Those needing electricity will be forced to buy it from the corporation at a price that it dictates. And more money changes hands when corporate-owned power lines are needed to move the power from the desert to the city.

In addition to this, current plans for the hundreds of plants now on the drawing boards are dependent on huge taxpayer subsidies to even get the projects off the ground. Some estimates of the dollar value of these are as much as 30%, an outrageous figure. Whether the hundreds of plants predicted will even work, much less produce at a profit is anybody’s guess, but remember that with these, as with nuclear plants, the big money is made early, on the design and construction. What happens after that is someone else’s (our) problem.

Many activists are now speaking out against the big push for large plants, sited in remote deserts far from the end user. Local control of solar is now being called for. The idea is that solar power facilities, such as collectors on rooftops of existing buildings, should be located in the urban zone itself. Control over both subsidies and output will be exercised by local citizens. The advantages of this are easy to see — corporate control is limited while individual control is enhanced; no big power lines need be built, which saves the 9% to 12% of electricity wasted in the course of transmission; and subsidies granted by the government go to the individual citizen, or in the case of rooftop collectors, the entity controlling the building, instead of to Wall Street speculators and corporate executives and shareholders.

Those who dislike the idea of government subsidizing local control must look at the many hidden subsidies of large mega-projects. For example, public land leased at low rates for long periods of time is not simply returned to taxpayers in the condition it had when given over, it is desert scraped to the subsoil then abandoned to weeds. The corporation saves much money by not having to compete with other users for water in the urban area; it gets water under public land for free, then simply injects it back into the ground, however contaminated. Land for transmission lines is lost to wildlife and other users of the desert; in fact in the case of desert tortoise habitat, the lines become magnets for ravens, a major predator of baby tortoises. These subsidies are seldom mentioned in newspaper reports, which are basically press releases put out by the corporate public relations grind houses, designed to gloss over any problems.

The current heavy hype for this kind of solar should give us pause. The more fervent the hype, the more likely there is a hidden agenda. There is a real possibility that the whole highly speculative “Renewables” craze may result in yet another big financial meltdown like the savings and loan scandal, the “” boom, and the failure of our current housing price speculation. It is necessary to read between the lines and to examine the situation with an open and skeptical mind. The large “environmental”organizations helping to promote the destruction of our deserts through big solar should be doing that, but they aren’t. We have to do it ourselves.

Some Web Links on this subject:

Has done several studies of local control versus big corporation developments.

Has done the major work on combating the “Sunrise Powerlink” power line corridor that is slated to go through Anza-Borrego.

A blog run by the Desert Protective Council that provides some posts on the solar power issue plus other issues and concerns.


LAND Public land provided for free or at nominal cost by the government Existing vacant land, or in the case of rooftop collectors, existing buildings
WATER Groundwater “mined” from subsurface, impacting local springs and wells, and simply flushed or re-injected into the ground untreated Municipal water coming from already existing infrastructure, wastewater treated in an environmentally sound way
INVESTMENT Private markets, speculative “wheeler dealers”, and government subsidies Private markets, local communities and government subsidies
PROFITS To speculators and corporations To local government, individuals and businesses
REINVESTMENT Invested in more big projects, or moved to other speculative deals or into offshore bank accounts Reinvested in the community where generated
RESPONSIBILITY Limited liability corporations paying off politicians and regulators Local communities with local, state and federal oversight
TRANSMISSION LINES Essential to build new ones New are unnecessary, but existing lines can be used to supplement power or to send surplus out of the area
RESOURCE DAMAGE Destruction of land surface and plants, destruction of and disruption of animal populations, depletion of groundwater, construction of road networks, unsightly industrial saturation, land closed to public use; ecology impossible to regenerate due to soil compaction and weed infestation (gone forever) Net gain instead of loss: rehabilitation of existing vacant lots, use of existing buildings, all new infrastructure is inside the already-disturbed urban zone
POLITICAL EFFECTS Enhances the power of large corporations and financial speculators to dictate to individuals and local communities Enhances local communities and control by individuals, curbs the power of large corporations and financial speculators on the community