Friday, November 18, 2011

Environmentalism for the 1%

The departure of the Sierra Club's chairman -- Carl Pope -- comes during a dark moment for environmentalism.  The vanguards of the green movement have compromised their core conservation ethic, forging alliances with corporations and ignoring the grassroots in order to make way for an unchecked renewable energy industry that is more intent on destroying public lands than saving them.

A recent Los Angeles Times article highlights how Pope may be a casualty of this attempt to gain influence in Washington and Wall Street, but his approach has been practiced by other national environmental groups,  including the Wilderness Society, NRDC, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife.  These groups have desperately sought acceptance among business and political elites, painting themselves as job creators by selling out America's landscapes to big wind and solar firms, and then bragging about the jobs they have supported.  What have they gained? Loss of respect among the grassroots and a Democrat-controlled White House and Senate that is still willing to undermine the Endangered Species Act and open the Arctic to oil drilling.

In the LA Times article, Pope defended his ties to big business and support for large solar facilities in the Mojave Desert as necessary, despite the ecological toll.  "If we don't save the planet, there won't be any tortoises left to save," Pope said, referring to the impact of big solar on desert tortoise habitat.  This statement is indicative of Pope's dismissive attitude toward distributed generation -- such as rooftop solar -- which would give the 99% the ability to generate their own clean energy.  Pope's statement is also indicative of his faith in Wall Street to save the planet at a time when most people are waking up to the reality that Wall Street only knows how to save itself.

A flood of Big Wind and Solar projects backed by firms like Goldman Sachs, Chevron, and Morgan Stanley are tearing apart America's deserts and forests from Vermont to California, but publishing the images of this destruction is considered heretical by large environmental organizations that have developed close relationships with the companies building the projects, and with the politicians who need to parade themselves as "job creators."

Native American protestors in the distance, with a heap of destroyed desert ironwood trees in the foreground. These trees and nearly 10 square miles of desert habitat will be destroyed for the Blythe Solar power project, which was approved after a backroom deal struck between the project developer and the Sierra Club, NRDC, Wilderness Society, and Defenders of Wildlife.  Some of these trees are probably hundreds of years old, tapping ancient water sources deep beneath the desert. Photo by Basin and Range Watch. 
Solar and wind companies have proposed to destroy nearly 1,000 square miles of public land in California alone, and thousands more in other southwestern states (see map at bottom).  National environmental groups have declared opposition to a couple of projects, such as the Calico Solar power project in the central Mojave Desert, but have otherwise turned a blind eye to the scale of proposed destruction.  In fact, a Sierra Club article in January 2011 asked the group's members to roll over and accept the destruction as a new way of life:
"Producing 10 percent of the energy the United States used in 2009 from wind farms, for example, would require turbines covering an area the size of New Hampshire.," according to Paul Rauber, the editor of Sierra Club's magazine.  "...[I]t won't be an easy transition. But having taken the position that it is a necessary one, it's something we need to start envisioning now."
Why is the Sierra Club -- "the largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States", according to its website -- asking its members to accept the old energy paradigm, instead of advocating for local clean energy (i.e. solar on rooftops and other places in our cities)?  They claim that the deployment of local clean energy would be too slow, even though places like Germany have already installed nearly 27,000 megawatts of local renewable energy.  Many national environmental groups have instead given destructive solar and wind projects the stamp of approval and asked the White House and Congress to provide corporate projects with subsidies and cash grants.  Subsidies for solar and wind companies are earning Wall Street millions of dollars in extra profit, according to the New York Times, even as a California ratepayer advocate warned that large renewable energy projects in the middle of the desert have increased the cost of electricity.
An executive for NRG,  a large energy firm, had this to say about the benefit of government subsidies his firm received for large solar facilities on pristine desert habitat: “I have never seen anything that I have had to do in my 20 years in the power industry that involved less risk than these projects,” he said in a recent interview. “It is just filling the desert with panels.”
Instead of slowing the subsidized onslaught, environmental groups are encouraging it.  The Sierra Club recently circulated a petition supporting the American Wind Energy Association's request to maintaining the "production tax credit," which has made the destruction of mountains and desert landscapes and bird life a lucrative cash cow for investors. The Club's petition never mentioned that the tax credit would support wind facilities in California Condor habitat or next to a large population of Mexican free-tailed bats.

A Sierra Club petition, asking its membership to support production tax credits for a wind industry already flush with public land and money.

Bulldozers clear an intact desert ecosystem, including hundreds of old Joshua Trees to make way for the Alta Wind facility in the western Mojave Desert.  Google invested in the poorly-sited facility, which is sure to reap a handsome reward thanks to the production tax credit.  Photo by Friends of Mojave.
The Sierra Club under Pope's leadership claimed to support the Occupy Wall Street movement -- tired of greedy corporations spoiling our natural resources -- a sentiment echoed by other green groups.  Actions speak louder than words, however, and these groups still paved the way for destructive energy projects.  Hopefully the Sierra Club under new chairman Michael Brune will recognize the miracle of solar energy; the ability to encourage policies that make rooftop solar accessible to everyday people, and dismantle the old energy paradigm.
  • The Sierra Club's leadership never informed its members that it voted to let BrightSource Energy build one of the most ecologically destructive solar energy projects on public land in the Ivanpah Valley, displacing or killing hundreds of desert tortoises, and rare plants.  Smaller conservation groups -- Basin and Range Watch and the Desert Tortoise Council -- are the only groups so far asking for the remaining habitat in the Ivanpah Valley to be managed for conservation instead of industry.
  • Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, and Audubon joined the American Wind Energy Association in a letter requesting the Department of Interior water down regulations on the siting of wind turbines, putting more rare bird species at risk.  Only the American Bird Conservancy and the US Fish and Wildlife Service's own scientists advocated for smarter policy.
  • NRDC, the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and Sierra Club brokered an opaque deal with Solar Millennium, clearing the way for the company to build the nearly 10 square mile Blythe Solar power project, despite the objections of Native American's concerned about ancient geoglyphs on the project site.  This deal came to light after the Department of Interior provided documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Several national environmental organizations, including the Wilderness Society struck a deal with First Solar Inc. to pave the way for the company to destroy several square miles of desert habitat adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park for the Desert Sunlight Solar project.   The Department of Interior redacted legal documents requested by the Mojave Desert Blog pertaining to this deal. 
Environmental groups should not be advocating more subsidies for Wall Street-backed firms to destroy our way of life and landscapes when solar technology allows us to generate clean energy at the point of use -- on rooftops, over parking lots, and other spaces in our cities.  We should instead focus on clean energy incentives (feed-in-tariffs and PACE) that give homeowners and businesses a credit to install solar panels on their rooftop or provide them with the means to finance and pay for it themselves.  Jigar Shah of the Carbon War Room, penned an op-ed recently asserting that "jumbo-sized solar is a jumbo mistake."  As he put it, photovoltaic (PV) solar technology is about "getting off the grid":
"Solar photovoltaic technology, at its core, is about distributed energy generation; each module is less than 400 Watts.  It is not about building massive arrays to feed the GRID. It is about getting off the GRID."
Solar panels where they belong -- over the built environment instead of on ecologically intact desert habitat.  Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
Local clean energy is about generating electricity where we live, cutting our dependence on big firms and utility companies.  It is energy for the 99%.  Big solar and wind ("utility-scale", or "central station"), on the other hand, will not take us "Beyond Coal," but simply open up another phase of regrettable dependence on energy companies that sacrifice natural resources for profit.  The fossil fuel industry has not gone away, either.  While environmental groups drew the nation's attention to their justified opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the Obama administration was quietly opening up more public lands and waters to the usual players in the coal, oil and gas industry, including drilling in the Arctic and offering new mining leases for hundreds of millions of tons of coal in Wyoming and Montana.

This dark moment in environmentalism has sparked a budding awakening, with an opportunity to return to its grassroots, cutting both greenhouse gas emissions and unnecessary utility-scale energy.  Groups across the country have formed to call for local clean energy and to fight back against big wind and solar developments that threaten their way of life, and the landscapes they cherish.  In the Mojave Desert alone these groups include Save our Desert, Friends of Antelope Valley Open Space, Friends of Mojave,  and Friends of Sand Canyon. In Colorado the Renewable Communities Alliance is pushing back against attempts to industrialize their area, and advocating instead for rooftop solar incentives.  Solar Done Right has spoken up for legislation that could promote rooftop solar financing. 
A pile of once-majestic Joshua Trees, cut down by Terra-Gen Power for the Alta Wind Energy Center.  Photograph by Friends of Mojave.

I'll leave you with the words of Peter Douglas, a former member of the California Coastal Commission, public servant, and citizen conservationist:
"I sense in pockets of our political, economic and civic world of leaders, a need to be seen as progressive facilitators and not as obstructionists in the way of new centralized industrial development of renewable energy.  This is an alarming and, in the long view, a self-destructive, tragic trend because it is unnecessary and erosive of community wellbeing.  Cities and Counties are entirely capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating clean, renewable, affordable energy for their regions with existing technologies without destroying vast swaths of critical habitat and celebrated public lands. All that is needed is political will, courage and progressive vision.

In our headlong rush for renewables, I respectfully urge you and all those in positions of influence to hit pause, step back, take stock of our human and environmental condition, and envision what we will have saved for the seventh generation of our kin.  It would be a travesty were we to destroy rare, irreplaceable public places in nature and deprive unborn generations the blessings of what should rightfully be their natural heritage.  I have no doubt, that if the proposed industrial solar projects are built on the Carrizo Plain the essence of this National Monument will be destroyed.  I am not saying don’t build industrial scale solar complimented by distributed small scale energy production and distribution (e.g., solar on rooftops, built and degraded lands coupled with robust fiscal incentives).  I am saying there are alternative locations that won’t destroy the Monument and that avoid major ecological damage.  We must tell applicants to find better locations.  Clearly, we can both save precious places and dramatically reduce green house gases:  This is not an “either or” situation."

The red spots in the map below depict some of the proposed wind and solar projects in Southern California.  Keep in mind that a UCLA study found that Los Angeles County has enough suitable space for rooftop solar to meet the city's energy demand -- no need for costly and destructive imports from the deserts hundreds of miles away.


View Solar and Wind in California and Arizona in a larger map

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