Activists’ Failure to Agree on Energy Sources Jeopardizes Economy

Published August 1, 2009

The national environmental lobby—the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, and others—have a single, unifying theme to their advocacy when it comes to energy and climate change: Get rid of fossil fuels and move on to “something else.”

Together those organizations spend hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, lobbying, campaign assistance, grassroots mobilization, and other pursuits. And they are very, very effective.

However, in determining what this “something else” to replace fossil fuels will be, not all environmental groups agree. That poses a serious danger to the economy by stymieing necessary energy development.

Some of these groups, such as the Pew Environmental Trust, think nuclear power should be on the table, but most others do not. Some, but not all, believe hydropower and biomass should be considered. Few support the use of clean coal.

All seemingly support wind and solar power, but not all support industrial-scale manifestations. Few agree on how or where new transmission lines should be placed.

No Development Supported

Case in point: On April 1 the National Resources Defense Council and National Audubon Society released a Google Earth map of the western United States showing areas they believe should be “off limits” or “fair game” for renewable energy development. NRDC President Frances Beinecke hailed the map as “a way forward for renewable energy development and protection of our wildlife and landscapes across the west.”

Just three weeks after the map’s release, however, NRDC was forced to issue a retraction. Senior Attorney Johanna Wald wrote, “We have not—I repeat not—greenlighted any lands for development. While we’ve taken some lands off the table, we are not saying that those that remain are places where development should occur.”

Sadly, it appears NRDC’s release of its map on April Fools’ Day was entirely appropriate.

This ongoing indecisiveness ensures there will almost always be someone, somewhere, who opposes an energy facility. It does not matter whether the plant produces coal, gas, nuclear, wind, solar, or geothermal energy; there will always be opposition. As ludicrous as it sounds, the government could propose to build a transmission line delivering free energy to the masses, and someone would still stand in its way, screaming, “Not in my back yard!”

Renewable Projects Stopped

The problem is evident in the vast number of energy projects environmental groups and their allies have stopped throughout the United States. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently launched Project No Project, an interactive Web site serving as a repository for key energy infrastructure projects that are being thwarted when our economy needs them most.

Of the 300 projects listed on the site that have been delayed or outright killed over the past few years, 65 were for renewables. The Web site can be viewed at

Tactics used to block projects vary widely. Some groups organize local opposition, while others lobby local governments to change zoning laws. Frequently the process is slowed down by groups that oppose permits and litigate against project investors and state and federal agencies. Ultimately, the projects are bled dry of their financing and simply stop.

We all have heard the horror stories about Cape Wind, the Nantucket Bay offshore wind project capable of powering 420,000 homes, which has been embroiled in eight years of permitting delay. But you may not have heard about the Cascade Wind Project killed in Oregon, or the Tallahassee Renewable Energy Center biomass plant killed in Florida, or even small projects such as Akeena Solar in California, which was sued for trying to install solar panels on its own roof.

Opposed to All Energy

Thus the environmental movement’s greatest strength—its ability to mobilize against a shared opponent—has become its greatest weakness. For the environmental movement overall, the shared enemy appears to be energy—all energy.

Now that the leadership of many of these environmental groups has become the leadership at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and Council on Environmental Quality, and in the White House, they have a unique challenge on their hands: Balance the dysfunction within the environmental movement with the Obama administration’s stated goal of building a clean energy future.

We know we will need a great deal of energy to keep pace with rising population and increased demand, but unless the environmental movement comes to grips with its energy identity crisis, the problem will only become much bigger.

William L. Kovacs ([email protected]) is vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Environment, Technology & Regulatory Affairs Division.

For more information …

U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Project No Project Web site: