• Steve Brown

Takeaways from the RECE 4.10 Board of Supervisors hearing

Desert botanist, Robin Kobaly, talks about the impact of site development on the plant/soil/fungal community on desert lands, and its role in carbon sequestration.
Desert botanist, Robin Kobaly, talks about the impact of site development on the plant/soil/fungal community on desert lands, and its role in carbon sequestration.

Rural desert residents from unincorporated San Bernardino County seemed weary of trudging down from the desert to San Bernardino to fight for their right to live in a rural manner in areas designated as "Rural Living" during the February 28, 2019 Board of Supervisors meeting to consider adoption of Renewable Energy Conservation Element 4.10. RECE 4.10, as the language is known, is a set of restrictions on development of large utility scale renewable energy projects in and around rural desert communities. The language, which was adopted at the meeting, helps protect rural desert residents from future development, while allowing projects that have already applied, to go forward with their applications.

There were several "takeaways" to be gleaned from the Board of Supervisors' hearing on RECE 4.10.

1. Unions appear out of touch and disinterested in the concerns of residents who would be impacted by large utility scale energy projects.

While union points about job creation, opportunities for apprentice training, and the nature of their trades being "temporary" jobs were all valid, they appeared to dismiss any and all concerns of residents who could be negatively impacted, either through their personal loss of property values, health, and quality of life, or through their own businesses and jobs.

The unions came across as tone deaf and willing to overlook any community or environmental harm that may be created by these projects, as long as their members got work (and some companies developing utility scale renewable energy projects don't use union labor, while others import labor into the area, leaving locals without the work). It was a strong indication that the union locals only represent their own self interest, a move that may seem to make sense to them, but helps to render unions less relevant to society as a whole.

I covered the first collaboration between unions and environmental groups during the Kaiser Aluminum strike of 1998-2000, when the Steelworkers partnered with EarthFirst! (Kaiser's parent company, Maxxam, also owned Pacific Lumber in northern California). It proved collaborations could be powerful when both labor and environmental activists reached outside of their comfort zone to work together. My experiences covering organized labor since that time has shown a lack of creative collaboration and a willingness to often act as a willing lackey of industry as unions try to keep their members employed.

Again, there's nothing wrong with working to ensure those in the trades earn a decent living, but making it appear like they're willing to do it by trampling on the rights of others makes them seem out of touch, and apathetic about the health and well being of others. Unions should consider more collaborative, forward-thinking approaches to enhance their relevance and to help keep them on the leading edge of industry, not as desperate and willing to embrace any project that waves the promise of jobs before them at any cost.

2. Where were the major environmental organizations?

Representatives of major environmental organizations were conspicuously absent from this hearing. They could have helped make the environmental case for intelligent siting, and acted as caring partners to the rural residents and communities of the desert. Instead... they simply weren't there.

Perhaps it was the nature of the beast - the issue at hand - that led to their absence? They may not want to be perceived as being anti-renewable energy, or having their position purposefully misconstrued by climate change deniers and industry. Or, perhaps they perceived the RECE 4.10 language as only being relevant to human residents of the desert, and thus not within their mandate or mission. It is, however, interesting that they want support from human desert residents in their campaigns, so it may make sense for some organizations to not play it safe, and to take a stand for all residents of the desert, human and otherwise.

3. Science played no apparent role in the decision making.

While award-winning naturalist, Pat Flanagan, and desert botanist, Robin Kobaly, both made detailed and cogent three-minute presentations on scientific concerns about large scale development on desert lands, and Kobaly had presented all supervisors with a copy of her presentation on desert soil, plant, and fungal communities and their role in carbon sequestration, it appeared the only supervisor who paid attention to this information was Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe. Other speakers referred to the science as well, but the discussion never really included the science of carbon sequestration in the desert, despite its relevance.

Ultimately, the science Flanagan and Kobaly present is a game-changer. Kobaly's work demonstrates that if carbon sequestration and reduction of atmospheric carbon is the goal of combating the negative effects of climate change, the best thing we can do with desert lands is to leave them untouched and not construct utility scale renewable energy projects on anything other than roof-tops and brownfield/previously developed lands.

While this may not be what renewable energy developers wish to hear, government and the public need to decide what is more important - looking good with big projects in the desert, or real carbon reduction. One helps fight climate change. The other helps industry. To "win" the battle vs. climate change, we have to be able to keep up to date on scientific developments and technological innovations. A decade ago, it may have seemed to make sense to clear miles of desert habitat to build a solar farm. Now, it doesn't. We must adapt, and adapt quickly - if we want to reduce the impacts of climate change.

4. Self interest rules

The Board of Supervisors meeting on RECE 4.10 made it clear that self interest was the overall driving factor in the testimony provided during public comments. Unions only cared about jobs for their members. Industry only cared about making sure they could proceed with their projects with as few restrictions as possible.

Rural desert residents voiced their self interest too - impacts to property values, destruction of beautiful views and sweeping vistas, loss of fresh air, health, and quality of life. The self interest voiced by desert residents was fundamental - how do we live with the impacts we have already seen happen to others, and why should we suffer so industry can make their profits, and the unions can have their temporary jobs (leaving residents with permanent consequences)?

Testimony by desert residents was powerful, direct, and compelling. Residents were talking about life and death, health or disability, and of losing something you've worked for all your life - something you love passionately on both a spiritual and cellular level. This was a level of potency for their testimony that the well coiffed suits of the industry - people who don't live in the desert, don't know its beauty and power, and who simply see the desert as a means to an end, could not hope to reach.

In addition, concern about their communities, and their neighbors, wildlife, and the region, intermingled with issues of self interest presented by desert residents. The desert was not just where they happened to find themselves living at present. It is their home - and one those speaking respected and sought to protect. These retirees, small business owners, Realtors, and ordinary folks, are the heroes of this battle.

5. Land Use Services represents industry, not residents

Throughout the Homerically-long journey of RECE 4.10 to its final adoption, as well as during public hearings on projects underway in San Bernardino County's desert districts, it has been quite clear that Terri Rahhal and Land Use Services has been prioritizing the concerns of the renewable energy developers over that of rural desert residents. She held private meetings with industry representatives to ensure their concerns were addressed - after the public comment period was concluded. She delayed presenting RECE 4.10 to the Planning Commission until she had an industry friendly staff-recommended alternative ready, and after a couple projects that could have been impacted by the restrictions of RECE 4.10, filed applications. It remained clear during this last hearing when Rahhal used industry materials in her introductory staff presentation to the Board of Supervisors.

Whatever the motivation for it, the takeaway from this ongoing bias is that rural desert residents must remain vigilant and involved in the approval process for projects planned for San Bernardino County.

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