Ever been to Nipton? It’s a whistle stop on the northern edge of the Mojave National Preserve. It’s as far west of the California state line as nearby Primm, Nev., is east. In other words, practically on it.
That’s where we ran into a couple of scar-faced, bloodied young men who looked to be stranded in the desert. Also some fellow actors, a screen-writer, and the director. All were gathering to shoot the pilot for a TV series revolving around a drug dealing plot that sounds suspiciously like “Breaking Bad.” While we waited for the extras to show, our talk drifted from the pilot to the Preserve.
One of the blood-oozers exulted, “And they are shutting down the mines!”— a reference to the federal California Desert Protection Act’s extension of National Park System mining laws to the Preserve. Put another way, “Score one for the Environment!”
Yet just north, an otherworldly glare emits from the 5 mile square Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System on the California side of Primm Valley. When the sun’s right, you see the glare from Nipton. Built on federal land in 2014 and supported by $1.6 billion in federal loan guarantees, the Ivanpah system is the largest of its kind. But bigger will come.
Federal policy thus pursues conflicting goals for desert land. Mining has been reduced to a curiosity. Meanwhile, alternative energy has altered more of the Mojave Desert in the last five years than hard-rock mining for all time.
That inconsistency probably would not faze our blood-oozing actor. If I had thought to ask, he would have said, “Score another for the environment!” Mines, coal and oil are bad; alternative energy is good.
Yet east of Tehachapi the expansion of solar collectors and wind-driven generators, along with their supporting roads, concrete foundations, and transmission lines, is scarring the landscape forever. Alternative energy bears the earmarks of any extractive technology and its impact is hardly different: It covers vast areas. Its product is transported to distant metropolitan markets through transmission systems that crisscross the landscape; just as oil, coal and minerals move along rails or pipelines. And it blights the land.
Strong arguments drive the development of solar and wind power, some to do with energy independence, others with jobs and the local economy. But many have to do with “protecting the environment” in terms of clean air and fewer carbon emissions. Ironically, it's this last point – the big “E” – that seems to make the reduction of deserts into rural-industrial wastelands acceptable to many people. The word “environment” acts as a palliative that deadens our concern about what’s happening.
Until now, the Mojave insulated us from the congestion of cities and revealed the world that preceded man. But federal energy policy is driving a Mojave land boom. The escalating prices are, in a way, an inverse measure of how little we value the land itself.
More is to come. Four months ago Congress voted a five year extension of the Production Tax Credit for alternative energy. This lucrative grant of subsidies and tax credits ensures that rapid expansion of solar and wind energy in the Mojave will continue.
Is there a way to slow or stop the relentless spread of alternative energy in the Mojave? Economic conservatives have argued that the Production Tax Credit involves misallocation of financial resources towards alternative energy and away from the development of less expensive but clean forms of energy like natural gas. So far, that argument has fallen on deaf ears. But coupled with increased awareness of the ongoing devastation of the Mojave, it might gain traction.
It’s time for us to disentangle ourselves from the sophistries surrounding the big “E” and say something straightforward: Stop ruining our priceless desert! If we don’t say that loud and often, we won’t be enjoying the drive from here to Nipton.
Girard Fisher is a retired attorney who lives in Tehachapi.