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.

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