Revving the "engine"


It’s become something of an Obama administration mantra: The latest economic stimulus package will help jumpstart the U.S.’s green economy. And at a press conference Feb. 20, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar repeated it yet again, as he spoke on how the Department of Interior, which oversees agencies like the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, will use its $3 billion in stimulus funds.

“My hope and vision,” he told reporters, is that public lands will serve as an “engine for the clean energy economy.”

But wait. That sounds an awful lot like making our public lands the engine of energy independence -- by tapping their bountiful reserves of natural gas at the expense of pristine lands, and clean air and water. The first reporter to question Salazar ran with that theme: Can the department allow quick development of utility-scale renewable energy and transmission lines while at the same time preserving other public land values like wildlife habitat? he asked. And will that mean altering environmental oversight in some way to expedite permitting and construction?

Given the environmental and social impacts past energy booms have had on the West, that’s a pair of worthy questions. Disappointingly (and, perhaps, predictably), Salazar sidestepped both. The money will go toward energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades to federal facilities, he explained. When pushed, he added that the Interior will lay out a  “foundation” and defined “plans” for proceeding with renewable energy development on public lands, but was sketchy on details because the department is still hammering out its policies.

Finally though, he came back around to something of a direct answer: “As we move forward, we will need to be mindful of and make sure to address other environmental values . . . There may be some tradeoffs.”

Granted, the fossil fuel industry got a lot more attention from the previous administration than renewables did. While renewable energy financial incentives languished in Congress and development rules were endlessly delayed in federal land agencies, oil and gas companies enjoyed relaxed regulations, expedited permitting, and weak environmental oversight. Giving the big polluters those bennies on public land was a mistake. But it would also be a mistake to give them to the “clean” energy industry. Wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, and their transmission lines – especially industrial-scale projects – all have impacts that need to be recognized and dealt with. Hopefully, the Department of Interior will act accordingly.

As the department continues to develop more specific plans (which can be accessed via website) for its economic stimulus dough between now and May, here are some things besides renewable energy mandates that are worth watching for:

-    How the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that brought us all those happy dams between the 1930s and the 1960s, will spend the $1 billion they received from the stimulus.

-    How the Interior Department will use the funds to engage young people in conservation work, and potentially natural resource careers with federal land agencies (most of which have graying workforces).

-    Where the agency will direct a chunk of money it received for abandoned mine cleanup.

fast-tracking renewables
Feb 22, 2009 01:01 PM
Politicians are already trying to “alter environmental oversight in some way to expedite permitting and construction” of renewable energy.


On February 11, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) introduced H.R. 6527, the “Emergency Solar Power Permit Act,” in response to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) effective freeze on approving solar project applications.A backlog of 130 pending applications currently exists dating back to 2005 without a single application being approved because BLM is waiting on Environmental Impact Statements from the applicants. The Emergency Solar Power Permit Act would waive the requirement to produce an Environmental Impact Statement in order to expedite the process and allow clean, environmentally friendly, renewable energy to begin development.

“Regulatory and political obstructionism has created this energy shortage that has lead to such high prices,” said Rohrabacher. “These bureaucratic impediments are now even damaging the possibility of fully utilizing solar energy which is the supposed darling of the environmental movement. This bill helps remove some of those regulatory roadblocks for solar energy and we need to be moving forward on all fronts to address the current energy crisis.”

LOL! I didn’t know NEPA, a cornerstone of environmental laws, was “obstructionism” or a “bureaucratic impediment.” While I support eliminating any undue impediments to solar development, I think we should level the playing field, not give solar projects a break compared to other projects of similar impact. For example, agencies have to prepare EISs for coal mines and natural gas/oil field development proposals, because these projects can have significant impacts. Couldn’t the same be said for a huge wind farm or several square miles of solar panels? Just one example of a significant impact from a large-scale solar project is the habitat is rendered completely unusable to wildlife, just as much as a strip mine or a gas field. For this reason, this bill might not pass muster. We would need to change NEPA to say, “Agencies must prepare an EIS when environmental impacts are significant, unless the impacts are from renewable energy projects.”

However, we do need to get very serious about building renewable energy infrastructure. We just need to do it according to existing environmental laws, not skirting them.