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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Energy Development Threatens the Carrizo Plain National Monument

from the Sierra Club's Desert Report, June 2008

By Cal French

(note: Ozymandias: is a famous poem about mankind's hubris)

The Carrizo Plain, known to some locals as the Carissa Plains, stretches for hundreds of thousands of acres between the Caliente Range and the Temblor Range in southeastern San Luis Obispo County, California. It is an historic place where thousands of years
ago the first among us gathered and shared. The mysteries of their symbolic art partially remain today at Painted Rock, a sacred place for peoples from the Pacific shore and the vast inland. By foresight and chance, its southern half has been rescued into the Carrizo
Plain National Monument. Its northern half is an admixture of two and a half acre ranchettes, productive farmland, and large ranchesand rangeland.

In the southern half of the monument, a new but all-too-familiar Ozymandias has come again. Vintage Petroleum, a subsidiary of Occidental, wants to see if it can find oil and gas in the 30,000 acres of sub-surface mineral rights it holds. When The Nature Conservancy (TNC) purchased the old ranches, which subsequently became part of the Carrizo Plain National Monument, it was only surface rights that were acquired. Vintage has notified the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that it wants to test, to thump and pound with mechanical rabbits, and to explode underground charges. The feedback, recorded on sophisticated, state-of the-art screens and strips of paper, could trigger the growth of an iron forest of drilling rigs and pumps within a few miles of those ancient symbols hand painted long ago on rock.

The Vintage proposal clashes with the presidential proclamation which created the monument. The BLM has an obligation toprotect what are called the “objects” on the monument: the threatenedand endangered animals and plants, the Native American sites, the vistas, and other “objects.” The Wilderness Society (TWS) is challenging this proposed exploration. Joined by the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council, and the local Los Padres Forest Watch, TWS contends that federal law requires the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the testing program because of “context” (society as a whole), “intensity” (severity of the impact), and “unique characteristics” (cultural resources, ecological critical areas). The project could be highly controversial, and if the testing were allowed on the monument, it could set a precedent for testing on other federal lands. Other controversies are likely regarding the threatened and endangered species on the monument – especially the giant kangaroo rat – which could be adversely affected by vibrator trucks, pads, explosives, and associated

Imagine now that the legal challenges and protests about the testing for oil fail to stop the thumps and explosions, which could begin in the summer of 2009. Imagine that oil is found. The Carrizo Plain National Monument could become another monument of failure and death: the death of a culture that preserved itself for millennia without destroying its natural roots and the more recent death of a national monument that lasted but a few years in the plans of environmental preservers and restorers and in the dreams of Marlene Braun, the monument’s first manager. It could just as well become a monument to our capacity to treasure and preserve our heritage of wild places.

North of the national monument, the traveler in this “antique land” will find the scattered community called California Valley, and still farther north, across Highway 58 (the Carissa Highway), are large holdings that extend for miles north, east, and west. These ranchesall have a long history. Following the end of the Spanish mission system with its scattered cattle herding, the acquisition of California by the United States, and then the Civil War, Americans—including recent European immigrants—moved into California. On and around the Carrizo Plain, descendants of original families from the 1870s still farm and ranch. They bought old homesteads, raised cattle, farmed wheat and barley, and lived lives few people these days comprehend or appreciate.

In this northern part of the plain the Ausra Corporation, based in Palo Alto, has purchased more than a square mile of land and plans to build a solar power plant using mirrors, tubes, towers, and turbines to generate 177 megawatts of electricity. It will use 27 acre feet of water a year which will be run through reverse osmosis filters because of its poor quality. Construction will require several years and over two hundred workers. After construction, more than 100 staff will be employed at the site. Many local residents and traveling environmentalists find fault with the planned lighting, the presumed noise from the steam turbines, the fencing, the possible run-off of herbicides into nearby Soda Lake, the increase in traffic of heavy trucks on Highway 58 for two years of hauling, and the incrementalism of a not-quite-yet proposed site across the highway from this reflector assemblage. This Ausra project is in the hands of the California Energy Commission (CEC) and all its made-public details are on the CEC website. It is also in the hands of California Fish and Game, which may have concerns about the removal of a birthing area for pronghorns.

North and west of the Ausra site, another company, OptiSolar from Hayward is now proposing a nine square-mile photovoltaic generating plant on existing farmland. The owners are willing to sell in order to continue farming and ranching on the many other thousands of acres they own. They live on some of the most productive acreage in the world for producing solar electricity. It is flat; there are few cloudy days, and it is relatively close to consumers in the southern San Joaquin Valley who run air-conditioners—the most consumptive use of residential electricity. Nearby, other landowners, seeing the possibility of selling part of their land in order to continue living the farming and ranching life on the rest of it are negotiating with solar companies to buy
their property. A set of two 230 kilovolt lines runs through this part of the plain; whether or not it can contain all the electricity from the projects is debatable.

Meanwhile, desert activists and others are questioning this entire push for solar in remote areas, wondering if projects such as Southern California Edison’s solar roofing of warehouses in San Bernardino and Riverside counties could generate the needed power during late afternoon and early evening hours that would offset the need for additional power plants fueled by natural gas, nuclear fission, and other non-renewables. Certainly, solar plants are needed as well, and putting them on land that has been under the plow for a century is perhaps better than putting them in a pristine desert landscape. Yet environmentalists continue to ask, “Why can’t solar electricity be generated close to where it will be used?” The lands of the Carrizo Plain National Monument, partially restored to natural life by a presidential proclamation in 2000, are threatened from within by the prospect of oil exploration and drilling and from without by the changes that will accompany industrialized solar generation. One of Barry Commoner’s “laws of ecology” is that there is no free lunch. We cannot reduce our consumption of carbon and nuclear fuel without conservation and without substitution of renewable energy. On this “lone and level” plain we will see how our conflicting hopes will balance out. We will see if a few more drops of heavy crude can be sucked from the earth. We will see if in our urgency to save the planet, we have buried our heads in the sand and neglected its beauty.


Cal French is currently chair of the CA/NV Regional Conservation Committee and is a long time Sierra Club activist. The Carrizo Plain has been a passion of his for many

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