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In California, quest for cleaner power hits tortoise-sized speed bumps

Golden State lawmakers ask which is more important: building the nation's largest solar-energy farm or protecting a fragile ecosystem?

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The company declined to comment directly on those issues.

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It will likely be months before state and federal regulators considering the plan make a decision on the tortoises' fate.

BrightSource President John Woolard warned in government filings released last month that heavy-handed regulation could kill the proposal. He did not mention the tortoises directly but referred to "unbounded and extreme" requirements being placed on the company.

At a time when the White House is pushing for the rapid development of green power, Woolard predicted the outcome in the California desert would reverberate widely.

The large-scale solar industry "is in its infancy, with great promise to compete with conventional energy," Mr. Woolard wrote. "Overburdening this fledgling industry will cause it to be stillborn, ending that promise before it has truly begun."

The Sierra Club wants regulators to move the site closer to Interstate 15, the busy freeway connecting Los Angeles and Las Vegas, to avoid what it says will be a virtual death sentence for the tortoises. Estimates of the population have varied, but government scientists say at least 25 would need to be captured and moved.

The group argues that the reptiles are the "most genetically distinct" of all of California's desert tortoises and point to a 2007 US Fish and Wildlife Service report that found the tortoise population is dropping in parts of a four-state region that includes California.

"The project must not contribute to additional loss of habitat," the Sierra Club says in government filings.

Roy Averill-Murray, the Fish and Wildlife Service's desert tortoise recovery coordinator, says there are insufficient data to make judgments about the population on the BrightSource site.

Tortoise "populations across the board have declined, but we don't have the same kind of information for this particular patch of ground," he says.

In a statement, BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs did not address proposals to move all or part of the complex, pledging that the company "will continue to work with the environmental community to ensure that we establish a good example for projects that follow."

In government filings, the company depicts the site near the Nevada line as far from untouched: It has been used for livestock grazing, has been crisscrossed by off-roaders, and the boundary of a golf club is a half-mile away.

Except for the tortoise, no other federal or state threatened or endangered animal or plant is on the site, the company says. In 1994 the federal government designated 6.4 million acres as "critical habitat" for the tortoise in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, but the BrightSource site was not included "and is by no means in an area critical to the survival of this species," the company concluded.

The complicated review is being watched closely.

"At this point, there are zero solar-energy projects on public land," says Monique Hanis of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group. "We are looking for ways to expand the market and reduce barriers ... and get more of these projects moving."

Editor’s note: The Monitor's Environment section has a new URL. And there's a new URL for its Bright Green blog. We hope you'll bookmark these and visit often.