Trump administration unveils last-minute plan to ease development in California desert

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An array of solar panels is seen in the desert near Victorville, California, U.S. March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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Jan 13 (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Wednesday proposed weakening environmental protections for millions of acres of California desert, allowing more room for wind and solar energy projects, mining, and broadband infrastructure.

The move is the latest in a string of last-minute proposals from the outgoing administration to accelerate development on public lands, and would amend an effort, hatched jointly with the state of California during the presidency of Barack Obama, that set aside areas for renewable energy development.

Wind and solar developers never embraced the Obama-era strategy because they said it left millions of acres off-limits to their projects.

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The U.S. Department of Interior said in a notice that its recommended changes would reduce so-called Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, lands that require special protection, by 1.8 million acres and trim California Desert National Conservation Lands, which are closed to energy development, by 2.2 million acres.

An Interior official said in a statement that the changes were needed for California to meet its goal to phase out the use of fossil fuels. The state aims to source electricity from only carbon-free sources by 2045 as part of a sweeping plan to tackle climate change.

"Large expanses of desert landscape will be needed to bring alternatives online to avoid blackouts and new constraints on the grid," Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Casey Hammond said in a statement.

The department's Bureau of Land Management will accept public comments on the plan for 90 days, it said.

The administration first said it was considering changes to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan in February of 2018 as part of an effort to unwind regulations that impede energy development.

Nearly three years later, the draft plan's unveiling in the final week of the administration of President Donald Trump means it will not be finalized before President-elect Joe Biden assumes office on Jan. 20. It is unclear if the Biden administration, which favors clean energy development but also preserving public lands, would seek to roll the move back.

California Wind Energy Association Executive Director Nancy Rader said it was also unclear whether the proposed changes would open up the "very limited, high-quality wind resource areas" that the original plan closed off to development.

Mining, renewable energy and grazing interests supported amending the plan, according to a summary of comments posted on a Bureau of Land Management website. Environmental groups, California state agencies, and the Department of Defense were among those opposed to modifying the plan.

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Reporting by Nichola Groom, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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