Environmentalists vs. Renewable Energy
It has become a truism that environmentalists want alternative energy—from wind, sun, water—to replace our reliance on fossil fuels. The trouble with this truism is that it isn’t true. Yes, in the abstract, environmentalists are all for so-called “renewable” sources of energy. But when it comes to specific projects it’s another story. It’s rare to find a renewable energy project of any significance that has not been challenged by environmental groups.
Take Brightsource Energy’s massive Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert, which will cover 5.6 square miles with mirrors to produce 370 megawatts of energy. (This is the amount of energy produced by a small coal plant, underscoring just how small solar energy is in the overall national energy mix, a mere one tenth of one percent.)
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed it enthusiastically. In September 2010 the California Energy Commission unanimously approved the project, and federal approval by the Obama administration—along with a $1.6 billion federal loan for the $2 billion project—followed. Seven months later, Google—that star of the progressive corporation firmament—announced it would invest $168 million in the plant. It even seemed environmentalists were on board since several of the largest outfits were invited to give their input and had not vetoed it.
But this seeming bulldozer of a coalition of green right-thinkers was challenged by a southern California group called the Wildlands Conservancy, which opposed the plans. David Myers, the Wildlands Conservancy’s executive director, summed up the objections: “It would destroy the entire Mojave Desert ecosystem.”
Endangered species did the trick, at least in the short term. In April 2011 the Obama administration halted the building of two-thirds of the project when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management found more than 600 desert tortoises could die as a result of construction. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to determine whether finishing the project would put the species in jeopardy.
Fighting the Wind
Can anyone doubt the environmentalist storm T. Boone Pickens would have unleashed if his proposal to build wind farms through the Great Plains from Texas to the Canadian border had gotten so far as the drawing board? If in doubt, look at the furor Cape Wind, in Nantucket Sound, has produced.
The $2.5 billion Cape Wind project, the first offshore wind farm in U.S. coastal waters, took a decade (and $45 million) to run the legal gantlet and line up local, state, and federal approvals. A slew of environmental groups have filed lawsuits charging Cape Wind with violating the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Rivers and Harbors Act. Then there’s the suit filed by the Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes claiming Cape Wind violates tribal protection laws because they need an unobstructed view of Nantucket Sound to carry out spiritual sun greetings and the turbines would disturb the seabed which contains sacred ancestral land.
Although, remarkably, Cape Wind has thus far survived the onslaught, it is by no means out of the legal thicket. In March 2011 Western Watersheds, a conservancy group, and a Native American cultural group sued on the grounds that federal officials had illegally “rushed” approval because they wanted the project to meet the funding deadline for multibillion-dollar federal credits due to expire at the end of 2010.
Moreover, thus far it is having trouble finding customers for its energy output, projected to begin in 2013. Because a 2008 Massachusetts law mandates that at least 15 percent of the state’s energy be produced by renewable sources by 2020, Cape Wind has been able to sell half the power it expects to produce to the utility company National Grid at more than twice the price of conventional power. It is counting on the state mandate to force other utilities to the table—if it surmounts the endless legal challenges.
Green Hydropower Opposed
As for hydropower, which unlike solar and wind is economically viable, environmentalists have long disliked it. More than a dozen environmental groups in Ohio banded together to block the development of a hydroelectric dam on the Cuyahoga River to replace the existing dam, built in 1912. Although it’s a “green energy project” complete with fish-migration assistance, the environmental groups want the existing dam torn down with no replacement.
And indeed, under environmentalist pressure, quite a few dams are being torn down, letting the rivers run free, but with no hydroelectric power to replace what is lost.
Targeting All Energy
Environmental groups continue to aver their strong commitment to renewable energy—somewhere else. Where, however, is a slippery issue. For example, the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and National Audubon released a Google Earth map of the western United States showing areas they believed should be off limits for renewable energy development. Three weeks later the NRDC issued a clarification—it did not mean to green-light the remaining areas for energy development.
Scientist-writer Peter Metzger was prophetic when in the 1970s he said that environmentalists are enthusiastic about energy sources as long as they do not exist. He predicted the same hostility would be directed at solar energy should it become viable.
That environmentalists seek to block “green energy” projects is not necessarily bad news, since wind and solar projects are hugely expensive, require massive taxpayer subsidies, and, for all the hoopla about “green energy jobs,” are in fact net job killers. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, solar power requires more than $24 in subsidies per megawatt hour of electricity, compared to less than 50 cents for coal. Wind power comes in about the same as solar, requiring more than $23 in subsidies per megawatt hour.
As for jobs, the American Wind Energy Association (the lobby for wind energy) reports no increase in overall U.S. wind industry jobs even though $2 billion in stimulus money was assigned for wind power job creation. Most of the money went to foreign companies.
Europe, which led the way on green energy, is now backing off. Verso Economics, a British economic consulting firm, found renewable energy destroyed 3.7 jobs for every job it created in the United Kingdom, and the government’s mandates on renewables cost consumers $1.8 billion in 2009-10.
Studies in Spain concluded 2.2 jobs were lost for every job created. In Germany, subsidies in the solar industry run as high as $240,000 per worker. The Danes pay subsidies of about $400 million a year to wind producers and unsurprisingly pay the highest electricity rates in the EU.
Seeing the economic handwriting on the wall, Holland has become the first country in Europe to abandon the European Union’s renewable energy targets.
Costly, Unattainable Mandates
As noted, much as they may oppose concrete projects, environmentalists have boundless enthusiasm for renewables in the abstract, the category into which government mandates fall. Under pressure from environmentalists, 29 states have enacted mandates, generally requiring that renewables (with hydropower specifically excluded in some definitions) provide 15-20 percent of all energy by 2020.
The Institute for Energy Research has found electricity prices are almost 40 percent higher in states with mandates (in New York they are double) and although mandates may not be the only reason, they clearly contribute. In New Mexico in 2010 consumers were fighting a 21.2 percent increase in electric rates as a result of a 2009 law that set renewable mandates at 10 percent for 2011 (and 15 percent by 2015). In Montana the legislature is already considering repealing its mandate after a study by the American Tradition Institute and the Montana Policy Institute found Montana’s mandate would cause the loss of 1,874 jobs by 2015 and cost an additional $225 million in electricity bills for consumers.
The costs would be even more devastating were the assorted mandates to be fulfilled—which is most unlikely to happen. For example, Washington State set a deadline of June 2009 for biofuels to provide 20 percent of the fuel used by state-owned vehicles. The date came and went with biofuels providing a mere 2 percent. In a rare glimmering of sanity, the California legislature failed to pass a bill upping the mandate for renewables from 20 percent to 33 percent.
All of this has not deterred Congressional Democrats from proposing legislation to create a national 15 percent mandate for renewables.
If environmentalists succeed in halting renewable projects, making fulfillment of mandates even more unlikely, they will inadvertently be doing the taxpayer a good turn. The problem is that environmentalists are also seeking to stop cold what the Wall Street Journal calls the real energy revolution—the potential of natural gas from shale to transform U.S. energy production. As the Journal notes, as recently as 2000 shale gas was 1 percent of U.S. gas supplies; today it is 25 percent. And it is a real job producer—72,000 jobs in Pennsylvania alone in less than two years.
Environmentalists are throwing everything they can come up with at it, hoping something sticks. Fracking (i.e. hydraulic fracturing of rock, the method by which the gas is released), they say, contaminates drinking water, releases toxic chemicals, causes cancer, causes earthquakes, adds to pollution (via the trucks hauling materials to the sites).
The New York Times, in its lead article of June 26, came up with a novel means of attack—shale gas is doomed because it is a money loser, with gas too cheap in relation to the costs of production. It doesn’t seem to occur to the Times that if the supply of gas falls off because it is uneconomical to produce at current prices, prices will rise, and gas has a huge way to go before it approaches the cost of wind or solar energy.
The general public, supportive of the hazy goal of “preserving the environment” on which environmental organizations raise funds, finds it hard to credit that cutting edge environmentalism is, and has been for decades, about cutting the supply of energy, not finding alternative sources. Indeed, John Holdren, Obama’s energy czar, in 1973 declared that the goal must be to “de-develop the United States.”
Future generations will surely look back in amazement at the process by which the most powerful country on earth denied itself the one essential for its continued dominance. Obsessed with scenarios of doom worthy of Chicken Little (a world rendered uninhabitable by pollution or global warming), it took refuge in fantasies of a premodern utopia before, in the words of David Brower, director of the Sierra Club and then of Friends of the Earth, “we began applying energy in vast amounts to tools with which we began tearing the environment apart.”
I am indebted to the Heartland Institute’s monthly newspaper Environment and Climate News for much of the material on environmentalist opposition to renewables and the impact of environmental mandates.
Rael Jean Isaac is a contributor to FamilySecurityMatters.org and coauthor (with Erich Isaac) of The Coercive Utopians. This article first appeared in Family Security Matters, and is reprinted with permission.