water pollution rules and renewables

It should come as no surprise that NRDC supports renewable energy development. Even renewable energy, however, comes with environmental impacts, particularly with projects that are not responsibly sited. So, just like with any other form of energy, NRDC is working to ensure there are strong safeguards in place when renewable energy is developed on public lands.

The good news is that the Obama administration has been working to develop a program to better screen potential solar development sites for environmental suitability and limit utility solar projects to “energy zones” – areas with the greatest energy potential and the lowest environmental conflicts. The process is not perfect, as my colleague Bobby McEnaney outlines in his blog, but it's a big step in the right direction of smart energy development and NRDC supports solar projects that have been carefully sited.

The bad news? The administration hasn't done the same for oil and gas development. That's right -- the Obama administration's environmental standards for dirty oil and gas development are far weaker than what has been established for other types of development, including those for solar and wind energy. Here's the latest example:

While NRDC strongly supports solar energy, we have significant concerns about the large Soda Mountain solar project proposed for California because it would be located on lands with high biological sensitivity that provide important habitat for the Desert bighorn sheep and threatened Mojave Desert tortoise--among other reasons.

This solar project would also require pumping a lot of local groundwater, in particular during the three years of construction, but also for decades during operation.

The EPA reviewed the proposal and stated that, before approval of the project, the BLM should require:

  • aquifer testing to accurately assess groundwater resources in the project area;
  • an extensive groundwater monitoring network
  • sampling of groundwater monitoring wells throughout the project life, and maybe longer.

These are all important safeguards and we applaud EPA for its efforts to protect groundwater. Because oil and gas development, including fracking, certainly has the potential to contaminate groundwater NRDC has said that the BLM should require baseline characterization of all usable ground water and surface water within a designated area of review before fracking is allowed, as well as ongoing monitoring. Yet I can't recall one oil and gas project on public lands where the federal government has required baseline testing,  groundwater monitoring wells, or ongoing groundwater monitoring throughout the life of a project.

It's time to hold the oil and gas industry to the same standards as any other industry. This means closing the loopholes in our federal laws that give the oil and gas industry special treatment compared to other industries, and it also means imposing the same safeguards for dirty fuels as we do for siting, constructing and operating clean energy facilities.

Photo Credit: Water Pollution and Standards/shutterstock