For the love of wasteland

 

When I was a kid, my parents would load my brother, my sisters and me into our van and haul us off to the buttes and flats of eastern Wyoming and Montana, to search for fossils left by ancient inland seas. I remember those places as all openness, meadowlark song and dusty two-lane highways that ran in straight lines to unbroken horizons. Drive-through country. Country some might call wasteland. Country we loved.

These days, those places don't feel quite so empty.

Coalbed methane wells, waste pits, roads and pipelines have covered the Powder River Basin, which straddles northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. Gillette, Wyo., has overflowed with new houses, and diesel pickups clog the local roads and parking lots. It's not hard to look at this sort of energy development as an environmental blight -- it slurps up groundwater, pumps unknown chemicals into the earth and chews up millions of acres of habitat to send greenhouse-gassy fuel to urban markets.

But there's another land rush on in southeastern Wyoming -- this one to harness wind that blows so hard in places, even turbines can't handle it. And in the Southwest, companies are jockeying for 1.7 million acres worth of access to prime solar energy on BLM land -- much of it in the Mojave Desert.

Renewables are undoubtedly cleaner than oil and gas. But because they're less concentrated energy sources, they're going to have to take up a lot of space to sate our massive energy appetite. In the case of solar, that will mean whole landscapes scraped clean -- what one BLM official recently described to The Associated Press as "a potentially irreversible commitment of lands." And harnessing renewable energy from remote places requires building giant new transmission lines to reach urban markets. In the path of all this development are "wastelands" like those I loved as a child -- landscapes that aren't wastelands at all, but home to delicate ecosystems, rare plants and animals, and to the West's mythic emptiness.

As Judith Lewis explores in one of this issue's features, "High Noon," renewable energy presents a conundrum for environmentalists who have long defended places like the Mojave, but who now also must consider the threat of climate change -- a problem so huge that even if all 70,000 megawatts of solar projects proposed for BLM land were built, we still wouldn't come close to offsetting the more than 300,000 megawatts of coal generation we currently rely on. And our hunger for energy keeps growing. 

Can we find ways to develop large-scale renewable energy plants and transmission without sacrificing large tracts of pristine land, as happened with oil and gas? We hope the answer is yes. In the meantime, however, let's try to put as much renewable energy as possible on already-developed land and buildings. And why not simply use less?

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