Posted on 12 October 2011.
Government has often played a big role in providing financial support for many categories of energy production, providing capital and tax breaks to help nascent industries gear up to enter the market place. And it’s quite rational to question whether this role should continue, particularly for energy sectors that have benefitted from those government subsidies and tax breaks and are now well established, such as oil, gas and ethanol.
Ironically, all of the recent focus on federal loan guarantees and the bankruptcy failure of Solyndra has overshadowed the much bigger role that the federal government plays as an energy supplier, providing access to oil, gas, coal — and now renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal energy — on public lands and in our coastal waters. You can also add to that the role that government plays in providing for the transport of energy from points of production to the places where that energy will be used as reflected in the Obama administration’s announcement last week of 7 pilot energy transmission projects. In terms of lands and resources affected – including financial, cultural, and natural resources – energy generation and transmission on federal lands is a much bigger deal.
Currently, the Obama administration is aggressively promoting the development of onshore solar, wind and geothermal resources and is planning for the development of wind resources off the Atlantic coast. Thus far, 34,000 acres of public lands have been permitted for solar development and thousands more acres are proposed for wind and geothermal development. Last week’s announcement of proposed transmission lines would affect approximately 2,500 miles of mainly public lands creating the equivalent of a 4 lane highway nearly long enough to stretch coast to coast, but instead crossing large sections of America’s wild landscapes. That’s not to say that renewable energy generation and transmission aren’t needed. The better question is simply this : “Are these projects being built in the right places and under the right conditions?”
Controversy over the impacts of energy development on public lands and resources is long-standing. This controversy is often made worse by an antiquated system for acquiring development rights on public lands, a failure to give adequate consideration to wildlife and important natural resources in project planning, and by past and present administrations’ haste in trying to fast-track poorly sited projects that have been in the pipeline for some time.
Despite long established environmental laws and processes designed to insure careful evaluation of the environmental impacts of proposed energy development on federal lands prior to project approval, a number of the fast-tracked projects have done a poor job in this regard. Poorly sited energy development can generate significant adverse impacts upon sensitive or imperiled wildlife and sever important migratory routes and corridors. Improperly sited generation and transmission projects can also adversely affect threatened and endangered species and hasten the demise of species not now listed but under consideration.
If the federal government is to continue supporting energy development and transmission by making publicly-owned and managed lands and waters available – and it’s hard to imagine how that is likely to change – then it must put real safeguards in place to avoid, minimize and mitigate significant effects to natural and cultural resources. Renewable energy – the fastest growing energy sector, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency — is no exception. Current efforts to site and develop renewable energy sources, including transmission facilities, highlight the need to significantly improve the process for project siting. Lands leased for energy development over the past several years have often been controversial because an inadequate effort was made up-front to locate such projects to low conflict areas. And while many solar and wind projects continue to move ahead, the costs and consequences for wildlife and the environment of these projects could have been substantially reduced or avoided through better “up-stream” planning.
The same is true for transmission. The public’s perception of the administration’s announcement to improve coordination and expedite permitting for transmission lines will be greatly influenced by the company that it keeps – in this case the 7 “pilot projects” that were announced simultaneously with the new process for expediting transmission line permitting. At least one line, the Susquehanna to Roseland line, has been dubbed by opponents as the “superhighway for coal” and would move largely coal-generated power from the coal fields of Pennsylvania through the Delaware River corridor and New Jersey Highlands to users on the coastline.
Other pilot project lines are located in areas where conflicts with wildlife and important natural resources are already known. The proposed Gateway West Transmission Line is likely to cross through approximately 235 miles of lands already designated by the State of Wyoming to protect the sage grouse – a candidate for ESA listing — fragmenting important habitat for the species. The present alignment of the Sun Zia transmission line in New Mexico and Arizona raises similar concerns for its impact on biodiversity in the fragile desert ecosystems of the southwest.
Some of these concerns may be fixable as the projects undergo belated review and analysis through the permitting process. The work of the proposed Rapid Response Team for Transmission (RRTT) could be helpful in this regard if, in fact, the RRTT provides the means to facilitate improved analysis of the impacts of alternative routes for each line, better access to data associated with wildlife consultations and environmental reviews, and is a means to engage the agencies involved in a dialogue with stakeholders that leads to permitting that avoids significant conflict altogether or reduces unavoidable conflicts to the maximum extent possible. The presumption that producing and transporting clean, renewable energy is an adequate rationale for ignoring significant impacts on biodiversity needs to be challenged. While climate change is widely recognized as the greatest global threat to humankind and nature, there is no need to sacrifice important wildlife, threatened and endangered species and their habitats for the sake of getting poorly sited renewable energy projects built. It is a false choice not unlike the false choice that some would argue Americans need to make between producing jobs and protecting the environment.
Through smart planning, thoughtful analysis and improved coordination, renewable energy generation and transmission can be directed to places with high energy potential and minimal environmental conflicts. For example, the EPA and the Arizona BLM have taken inventories of brownfields, abandoned farmlands and previously disturbed lands that fit this category. And the BLM is now working on a strategy to guide future renewable energy development to these and other low conflict zones. This is a strategy that could actually accelerate permitting and development by providing developers, investors and conservationists with the environmental information and certainty they need to support utility-scale renewable energy and transmission projects.
Clearly, the status quo is unacceptable. Continuing to fast track renewable energy projects on sites regardless of the environmental values of the affected areas will only produce conflict, prolong project analysis, and delay permitting. As a result, some poorly sited projects are likely to be challenged where their impacts are too great or simply cannot be mitigated. A more thoughtful and rational approach – one that attempts to guide projects to places where conflicts with wildlife and other resources are low – will work better. This kind of approach is desperately needed if our public lands and coastal waters are to continue to produce energy, sustain local economies, and generate jobs for thousands of Americans, without sacrificing irreplaceable habitats for increasingly threatened wildlife and wild land resources.