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Climate Change and NEPA: Getting it Right

Climate Change and NEPA: Getting it Right

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law in 1969 and has gone on to be one of our country’s most important environmental laws. The law creates a framework and process by which federal agencies must consider the impacts of their actions on the environment – including natural resources, human health, infrastructure, and land use. Since climate change is one of the most important environmental issues to emerge in the past few decades, and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future, it is clear that NEPA has an important role to play in how agencies consider the effects of climate change both on their investments, and also on the resources that their projects affect. It is increasingly critical for agencies to thoughtfully and thoroughly consider climate change, from both an emissions and adaptation standpoint, as part of NEPA analysis, particularly in the most detailed and through decision documents, Environmental Impact Statements.

In order to facilitate agencies’ consideration of climate change, the administration released Draft NEPA Guidance on Consideration of the Effects of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2010. The Draft Guidance clearly indicated that relevant climate information includes both greenhouse gas emissions information, and also climate change impacts and adaptation. To date, however, most of the attention paid to the guidance has been from the point of view of emissions analysis.

To get a better understanding of whether and how well agencies were incorporating the adaptation recommendations, we analyzed 154 Final Environmental Impact Statements released between July 2011 and April 2012. To our dismay, we found that very few incorporated the climate adaptation elements of the 2010 draft guidance. Even the best-performing EISs tended to incorporate climate change into a limited number of the elements of the affected environment, failed to make a full comparison between the various alternatives, or used short and qualitative statements rather than full analysis based on the best available science. We explore the possible reasons for this and present recommendations for overcoming these obstacles in our new report Reasonably Foreseeable Futures

The Chiracahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest support the sky island ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands.  Portions of the sky islands would be put at risk by this bill.

The Chiracahua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest support the sky island ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands. These ecosystems are severely threatened by climate change, and climate-smart management will be key to their survival.


Posted in Climate Change, Federal Policy, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, NEPA, Public Lands, Smart from the Start, Uncategorized0 Comments

West Front of the Capitol. Photo Credit- Architect of the Capitol.

Secure Capital for Renewable Energy is Good for Wildlife and the Economy

The Obama administration has done a commendable job jumpstarting renewable energy development and is well on its way to achieving the president’s goal of providing enough renewable energy to power three million homes.  Although the administration’s efforts to boost the renewable energy sector have been successful to date, there is little doubt that concern for continuing access to capital –the result of the potential loss of the production tax credit and grant programs, the impact of cheap natural gas, and the failure to agree on a national energy policy that would spur investment in clean energy development — is undercutting the administration’s successful effort to move the clean energy economy forward. This uncertainty – especially for financing and a growing market for clean energy – will continue to thwart the growth of this energy sector.

Congress could address these concerns by extending tax credits (which could be paid for by redirecting current oil and gas production subsidies) and by passing legislation to establish a national goal for renewable energy production or by finally putting a tax on carbon pollution. These solutions would help spur private-sector investment in clean energy and reduce the industry’s dependence on federal subsidies.  The result would be good for economic growth, stimulate employment, and reduce the federal deficit (by reducing federal outlays and generating increased tax revenue over the long term).

Instead, Congress has chosen to do none of the above — leaving the market uncertain while complaining that the Obama administration has no energy policy.  At the same time, anti-environmental members of Congress choose to argue that regulations designed to protect human health and natural resources are thwarting efforts to promote clean energy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To the contrary, the conservation community has worked in partnership with the solar and wind energy industries to frame policies to guide solar development on public lands and promote responsibly wind energy projects.   With encouragement from the industry and conservation groups, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is poised to finalize a first-of-its-kind plan for responsible solar energy development on public lands, which should help solar energy projects move forward more efficiently by reducing risk to wildlife and natural and cultural resources.

In addition, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service recently issued guidelines for wind energy development that were based on the recommendations of a scientific panel (established, in fact, by the Bush administration) and fully-supported by the wind energy industry association and leading conservation organizations. This is ground-breaking progress for the energy sector that has never been seen before and a reflection of a common understanding of the need to develop cleaner, more environmentally-responsible and secure sources of energy.

But to keep the clean energy boom from going bust, our nation’s leaders need to act quickly to shore-up the nascent industry. Congress can start by creating demand for renewable energy, following the lead of some 33 states – most notably California, which has set the highest target aiming to generate 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 – and setting a national renewable energy standard. Although such legislation is currently pending, its prospects for passage are not good, to no one’s surprise.   Congress must also make financing for renewable energy development – solar, wind and geothermal projects – more secure as President Obama has called for time and again. The uncertainty of our nation’s commitment to clean energy discourages investment from the private sector. The oil and gas industry receives billions of dollars worth of incentives each year. For the clean energy industry to take flight, Congress must at least make a commitment to renewables on par with fossil fuels.

Last, but certainly not least, the Obama administration must put in place a national program for siting and permitting responsible clean energy projects. As mentioned earlier, the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed solar-energy program stands as an example of “smart from the start” clean energy policy. It was developed with input from conservation organizations, industry representatives, clean energy advocates, utilities, and investors. The program aims to accelerate solar energy development by guiding projects to low-conflict areas that are least likely to impact imperiled wildlife and sensitive lands. This approach reduces risk for investors and provides developers with greater certainty that their projects can move forward and conservationists with greater confidence that risk to wildlife and the environment will be minimized.

If the clean energy sector goes bust, it cannot be blamed on the Obama administration, the solar and wind energy industries, or conservation groups. The blame will fall squarely on Congress, which chooses instead to complain about the lack of a national energy policy, while blocking any effort to help advance our clean energy future and pointing a finger at others for their failure to lead.

Posted in Renewables, Smart from the Start0 Comments

Government’s Role in Renewable Energy Goes Well Beyond Financing

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.

Posted in Renewables0 Comments

oil and gas drilling

The push to “un-reform” oil and gas leasing reform

After taking office the Obama administration took common sense steps to reverse the Bush administration’s unbalanced approach to developing oil and gas on our public lands.  The administration rightly recognized that a “drill baby drill” policy posed a significant threat to wildlife, water, wild places and western values, and was leading to more and more conflict over every lease.  In an effort to reduce the conflict in the leasing process and balance out resource considerations, the Department of Interior provided a number of reforms through Instruction Memoranda.  Reforms from these memos require the Bureau of Land Management to do things like:

  • Standardize oil and gas lease stipulations that protect wildlife and other resources by setting a baseline of protections that have to be incorporated into any drilling project
  • Incorporate new adaptive management features that allow adjustments to be made as more information is gained on how drilling is impacting the natural environment
  • Establish local “Master Leasing Plans” throughout the west to facilitate thorough environmental review of potential drilling impacts BEFORE offering leases in areas with high energy potential and high risk of environmental conflicts
  • Get rid of policies that previously reduced the amount of environmental review required for oil and gas leasing

BLM’s fact sheet on the reforms is here and a chart comparing the old and the new is here.

These reforms were an important step in streamlining and modernizing the process by fully taking into account all resources affected by leasing and by pushing leases into lower conflict areas.  However, as is the case with many of the common sense policy changes initiated on our public lands, these reforms are under attack in this Congress.  Despite the fact that recent reports show onshore oil and gas drilling at a twenty year high even with these reforms in place, a bill introduced in the Senate would reverse the administration’s reform agenda along with a number of other important progressive actions taken by the Obama administration to improve oil and gas leasing.

In addition to the bill, a recent letter from Republican Senators attacked the BLMs leasing reforms.  In response to this letter, former head of the BLM Mike Dombeck said: “It is disappointing to see members of Congress, presumably at the request of industry, attempting to roll back such common sense policies on the land that belongs to ‘we the people.’”

A halt to the Master Leasing Plans (MLPs) currently under development, in particular, would be a huge loss.  These innovative plans provide a new and powerful opportunity to avoid and minimize wildlife and other environmental conflicts that could result from poorly planned oil and gas leasing before a project is sited and investments are made.  This type of “smart from the start” planning results in a win-win because it has the potential to resolve conflicts prior to the siting and development of oil and natural gas wells, thus avoiding costly controversies that always seems to end up in court.  A law that gets rid the MLP process would stop this good policy in its tracks.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Public Lands, Smart from the Start1 Comment

A Response to “The Deadly Wind beneath Their Wings”

The Heritage Foundation’s disingenuous attempt to use the death of Golden Eagles from wind turbines as a rationale for ending federal supports for clean energy development is just that.  While wind energy projects have impacted wildlife, and the loss of eagles and other sensitive species is cause for concern, the wind energy industry has recognized the need to address these concerns and has provided leadership in this regard.

To promote better understanding of the potential impacts of wind energy on wildlife, several wind energy companies joined with leading conservation organizations to establish the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI).  AWWI provides a forum for addressing wind-wildlife impacts, for conducting research, and for finding solutions to wind energy and wildlife conflicts.  In addition, wind energy representatives joined with conservationists as a part of a Federal Advisory Committee established by the Bush administration to recommend means to further efforts to develop wind energy in wildlife-friendly ways.  The report of this advisory committee, delivered to the Secretary of the Interior last year, is providing the basis for new guidelines for developing wind energy in ways that minimize and mitigate its effects on birds, bats, and other wildlife.

To use the impacts of wind projects on wildlife as a basis for challenging environmental community support for green energy ignores both the efforts made to minimize the impacts of clean energy development on wildlife and the value to wildlife and natural resources that clean energy development will provide.  A recent report by the Interagency Panel on Climate Change made clear that the greatest threat to biodiversity is global warming and its consequences. With the Congress unable or unwilling to institute legislative measures to curb green house gas emissions to spur investment in clean energy, federal support for clean energy is the only alternative in lieu of the creation of  markets that stimulate clean energy investment.

In contrast to clean energy and the efforts of the wind industry to reduce its impacts on wildlife,  Congress has shown consistent support for oil and gas companies. Last year, for example, it gave nearly $4 billion to the oil industry in tax breaks and incentives despite the widely recognized consequences of oil and gas development for our climate and wildlife, wild lands, and natural resources.   In contrast, there’s never been this same long-term commitment to renewable energy.

Short-term stimulus funding provided a needed boost for clean energy research and development. But compared to the permanent “incentives” for oil and gas development, the time-limited support for renewable energy projects is totally inadequate.  To suggest it is not warranted while ignoring the generous, permanent subsidies for oil and gas exploration and development is ludicrous.  Grants and loan guarantees for renewable energy projects will run out again the end of this year.  Only the Congress can fix this problem, as the administration has correctly encouraged them to do.

Posted in Energy, Fossil Fuels, Imperiled Wildlife, In the Field, Public Lands, renewable energy, Renewables0 Comments

Are the Feds Getting ‘Smart From the Start’ with Renewable Energy?

In releasing its new report, “21st Century Government:  A Simpler, Smarter Regulatory System,” the Obama administration highlighted its “smart from the start” approach to large-scale renewable energy development on public lands. While the Obama administration has made progress – more than any previous administration – in advancing clean energy development, it is essential that lessons learned from initial efforts to develop renewable energy be used to develop a smarter approach moving forward.

In reality, the administration’s efforts to promote clean energy development have not been as smart as they could and should be. And they have been slow to start. In all fairness, oil the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year diverted enough energy and expertise among key agencies in the federal government, including the White House, to slow progress on the clean energy front. You can see the irony, of course, since building a clean energy economy is essential to reducing our oil dependency. But that excuse is gone now, and the Obama administration is focused on accelerating responsible renewable energy development.

But the slow progress in clean energy development can’t be blamed solely on the Obama administration. A real roadblock to clean energy development has been the lack of certainty that Congress will commit essential funding for renewable energy projects. For years, Congress has shown consistent support for oil and gas companies. Last year, for example, it gave nearly $4 billion to the oil industry in tax breaks and incentives. In contrast, there’s never been this same long-term commitment to renewable energy. Short-term stimulus funding provided a needed boost for clean energy research and development. But compared to the permanent “incentives” for oil and gas development, the time-limited, support for renewable energy projects is totally inadequate.  Grants and loan guarantees for renewable energy projects will run out again the end of this year. And this is bound to bring about another rush to get projects done, which leads to hurried planning and analysis of impacts on water, wildlife and the environment.  Only the Congress can fix this problem, as the administration has encouraged them to do.

For its part, the U.S. Department of the Interior is working to put in place a process for solar development that would get good projects done faster and more cost effectively.  We’re urging the Interior Department to make the program truly Smart from the Start. That means starting with good planning and project siting. Developing projects in areas where conflicts with wildlife, wild lands, and other important natural and cultural resources are minimal — making the probability of success that much higher — is clearly smart.  Even better, these projects should be close to transmission lines (or places where transmission lines are likely to be) so that the power generated can be delivered without having to build new, expensive transmission corridors. This is smart, too.  And even better would be to recycle landscapes that have already been damaged like old mines or worn-out farm lands – that way a solar power plant can give new life to already degraded lands and minimize impacts on pristine places and wildlife habitats.

Of course, not all impacts can be avoided in all places, so a means to mitigate unavoidable impacts is needed as well. BLM policy is to protect sensitive wildlife and improve habitats for threatened and endangered species. Smart planning, especially if done at a larger, landscape level, instead of on a project-by-project basis, can improve the likelihood that impacts can be avoided, minimized and mitigated where necessary.

Finally, if a means can be found to do much of the environmental review and analysis ahead of time for the places best-suited for clean energy projects, it would help speed up planning, permitting and construction. This isn’t complicated either. It simply requires coordination between government agencies, developers and other stakeholders. That way we can ensure that any unanticipated and  unintended impacts of a project are identified early and minimized and mitigated.

The Obama administration is on the right track in proposing to be Smart from the Start as it encourages clean energy development and promotes a clean energy economy. But to be successful and smart, it needs to keep things simple. Put projects in the right places, mitigate any unavoidable impacts, and streamline the processes required to ensure that clean energy gets permitted and built in an environmentally sound and efficient way. That’s a 21st century strategy based on old-fashioned common sense.

Posted in Renewables0 Comments

Photo of a greater sage grouse

Sage Grouse Conservation Strategy Delayed in Oregon

Photo of a greater sage grouse

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Faced with strong opposition from wind developers and some eastern Oregon counties, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has delayed final adoption of the state’s updated sage grouse conservation strategy, which had been scheduled for December 3.  In the meantime, the Natural Resources Conservation Service is moving ahead with the next round of funding for its Oregon sage grouse initiative, providing an additional $3.5 million for projects to improve habitat for sage grouse on private lands in eastern Oregon.  The focus is on juniper removal within three miles of sage grouse leks in Baker, Crook, Deschutes, Harney, Lake, and Malheur counties.  Deadline for signups is December 15.  Payments for juniper removal typically average about $141 per acre.

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Pacific Northwest, Renewables0 Comments

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.