Obama Administration Approves Roadmap for Solar Energy on Public Lands
Today Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a record of decision establishing a brand new program for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that will provide a comprehensive framework for managing the solar resources found on public lands in six southwestern states. This is a remarkable accomplishment as few Interior Secretaries have established original initiatives without a prior congressional order. No overriding regulation mandated the establishment of this program—although it was dictated by the biggest threat the public lands have ever faced—climate change.
Maybe few new programs, such as this solar program, are established because it's not an easy task—especially if you want the program to endure. There are no specific statutory requirements that must be met: only experience with existing programs to rely on. Because of the lack of direction, the "decider" really has to be open to input from stakeholders and be prepared to change his mind about what the program should entail based on that input. If it's a big program with a high risk of serious and extensive environmental impacts like the solar program, the Secretary has to be committed to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process and willing to alter draft components of the new program based on what is revealed in that progression. If the stakes are high, as they are with the solar program, the Secretary needs to also devote the time and energy needed to develop a sound program and to ensure that adequate staff resources are also available. On numerous occasions in the past, we have seen secretaries develop other programs and policies and fail to meet most, if not all, of these "tests."
Old and dirty industries = Busted programs
Compared to other BLM mandates such as managing oil and gas drilling, or hardrock mining, or livestock grazing, this solar zone program is particularly unique in its construction. In the past, BLM inherited its challenges. Industries like oil and gas drilling on the federal lands predated the formation of the BLM, forcing the BLM to enter into a never-ending game of catch-up—never quite able to implement management protocols that were truly proactive. In a lot of ways, BLM has been forced into a scenario akin to trying to rebuild a car engine while also whizzing down the freeway at breakneck speeds. In contrast to the traditional BLM way of construction, the new solar zone program allows the BLM the opportunity to assemble a program from scratch.
It is also key to understand the BLM’s evolution over the last seven years in grappling with the challenges presented by utility scale solar development. In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, with the goal of generating 10,000 MW of renewable energy on public lands by 2015. In addition, an ambitious California renewable portfolio standard spurred further interest in solar development on BLM lands. By 2008, the BLM had more than 500 solar applications, but there was nothing orderly about how the agency was processing and managing these applications. More than 80 million acres of public land were made available for solar development with practically few considerations made for environmental suitability, and there were no financial diligence requirements for applicants either. Consequently, proposed projects were literally all over the place: some applications were located in wilderness areas, while others were nominated in regions that had no electrical transmission necessary for development, or in spots that did not even have adequate solar radiation or insolation needed for production. The situation was a mess, and BLM staff were more vested in their traditional role of overseeing oil and gas development than addressing the emerging need for developing cleaner sources of energy.
Zones and landscape planning receive their due
The situation started to change in 2009, when Secretary Salazar committed to develop a new solar program to address these numerous inadequacies. However, the first attempt to establish a solar program left much room for improvement. Rather than embracing an approach that would minimize the footprint and impacts of these utility scale sized projects by screening for suitability, BLM proposed to allow development on a whopping 22.5 million acres. But that first proposal also included a kernel that would provide a better path forward—the creation of 24 solar energy zones on 687,000 acres. The addition of zones in that first draft was critical. The zone approach was a revolutionary way to look at energy development. Instead of a process that allowed applicants to pick areas based solely on the quality of the solar energy resource, a zone approach would attempt to analyze development from a landscape perspective, in an effort to funnel development to pre-identified areas based upon a series of environmental and infrastructural screens. Well-designed solar zones will ideally include lands that are previously disturbed, close to transmission and other infrastructure, and do not have acute conflicts with wildlife and other critical ecological resources.
Reducing the footprint by millions of acres
Unfortunately, that first tranche of 24 solar zones did not meet this standard. Some zones were not adequate for the technological needs of solar development, and other zones were simply ecologically inappropriate for development (such as the Iron Mountain zone, a zone that contained and was adjacent to numerous wilderness quality lands). Nevertheless, the Interior Department did another remarkable thing: they listened to the input of stakeholders, and by the summer of 2012, the BLM proposed to focus development to just the solar energy zones, while also eliminating the opportunity to develop essentially without constraints on the 22.5 million acres as originally proposed. BLM also dropped seven poorly designed solar energy zones, including the aforementioned controversial Iron Mountain zone, and reduced the aggregate acreage by 400,000 acres. That left 17 solar zones on 280,000 acres.
As of this summer, BLM proposed an additional nomination process that would allow for the creation of new zones when necessary. The BLM also introduced a “variance” system for approximately 17.5 million acres. This system would allow developers to apply for a variance in order to develop projects outside of a solar zone if they could meet a series of strict environmental and performance criteria. And while the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) supports the flexibility that the variance protocol provides, by affording a process for developers to identify potentially additional suitable areas for development, the variance system should be considered as the exception rather than the norm given that the current zones are more than adequate for the foreseeable future.
Turning qualitative choices into a quantifiable program that protects resources
NRDC’s advocacy is often driven by a qualitative conviction that sensitive lands must be preserved for future generations, but we also emphasize the importance of clear and consistent criteria and data. In the case of the new solar program, NRDC has worked with colleagues and other environmental and conservation organizations to define the importance of the lands in question through a series of ecological, wildlife, cultural and economic data points and screens—and we have urged the BLM to do the same. By adopting a consistent standard, we can begin to approach siting decisions in a pro-active and more comprehensive manner. In an ideal world, we would not have to contemplate any utility scale development in the desert, but the challenge of climate change is going to require new approaches to energy development. The threat that climate change poses for these desert landscapes is not going away, nor is the need for corresponding solar development.
Given that the BLM originally proposed solar development on 80 million acres, we are encouraged by today’s decision, which reserves development mainly to 280,000 acres—and it marks a huge improvement over the traditional BLM way of managing energy resources that allowed energy companies to dictate the terms before key management protocols were even established.
The following maps depict how the solar program has evolved over the last three years in the Southwest:
Before 2011- 80 million acres open for development (in pink):
- No Guidelines for Development
- No Specific Protections for Wildlife
- First Come First Serve For Applicants
2011 Draft EIS - 22.5 million acres open for development (devevlopable area in blue):
- Development is Determined by Lands With Highest Solar Energy Potential
- Conservation Safeguards Are Wholly Inadequate
- Establishes 24 Solar Energy Zones
- But the Zones Are Ineffective as Configured
Early 2012 - Changes to the zone program (zones in green):
- 24 Solar Energy Zones
- 687,000 acres in Zones
- Development Limited to Zones
- Many of the Zones Are Ecologically Incompatible with Development
Summer 2012 Final PEIS - Development reduced to 285,000 acres (zones in red)
- Limits Development to 17 Solar Energy Zones
- 285,000 Acres
- Solar Zones That Contain Critical Habitat Are Dropped
October 2012 Final Record of Decision – Zones + Variance Areas (zones in red, potential variance area in black)
- 17 Solar Zones
- Additional Areas Outside of Zones Could be Potentially Developed if Strict Environmental Criteria Can be Met if Developers Apply for a "Variance"
- Variance Process is the Exception, Zones are the Default
- Under 18 Million Acres of Variance Are Available
- Strong Protections for Wildlife, Millions of Acres Excluded to Protect Habitat
GIS Notes: The maps depict an inset of the greater solar study area, in focusing on the predominant region of the Southwest slated for likely energy development. In addition, the variance map does not represent the final variance area, but what was proposed in the Final EIS—the total variance area is likely to be somewhat smaller in the Record of Decision.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
By Jeff Masters, Ph.D.
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