Environmentalists vs. the Environment

Steven F. Hayward26 Apr, 2024 4 Min Read
Fight it out, kids.

A funny thing has happened on the way to the glorious “energy transition” to a net-zero economy: environmentalists keep getting in the way.

It is well understood that the maniacal drive to install massive wind and solar power projects, not to mention large new battery farms and “carbon-capture” facilities, all require substantial expansion and upgrading of the electricity grid. When Sen. Joe Manchin finally capitulated in 2022 to supporting President Joe Biden’s blowout “green energy” subsidy bill (the so-called “Inflation Reduction Act”), it was supposed to be part of a deal in which regulatory and permitting reform would follow, not only to allow for a natural gas pipeline in West Virginia that is dear to Manchin, but other infrastructure projects, especially to enable new green energy supplies.

Manchin: blindsided by reality.

But the permitting reform legislation never passed Congress. Environmental fundamentalists, including 70 Democratic House members, opposed any permitting reform. The chief achievement of decades of environmental activism is the patchwork of laws at the national and state level, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), that have empowered environmentalists to slow and sometimes block development of all kinds. While NEPA and its state-level versions have not stopped all development, they can delay or increase the cost of projects sufficiently that many projects are simply deterred from even being proposed. When one lawsuit fails, environmental lawyers are often ready at the courthouse steps to file a dozen more, and the cycle of delay repeats.

Environmentalists are loath to give up their superpower, even for the supposed "climate change" kryptonite of "green energy." The Sierra Club, for example, has spent six years blocking a proposed transmission line intended to import emission-free hydropower from Canada. The Sierra Club has also opposed proposed solar power projects in California’s desert areas. (The silver lining here is that the Sierra Club is in deep financial trouble at the moment, with internal rifts and mass layoffs imminent, according to The New Republic.) The Washington Post editorial page took note of this perverse state of affairs in a recent editorial, “Environmentalism Could Stop the Clean-Energy Transition.” The Post notes:

Solar plants and wind farms, transmission lines and carbon-capture projects face opposition from conservationists and other environmental groups asking courts to stop new infrastructure from encroaching on wetlands, forests and other ecosystems. . .

Researchers at Stanford University studied 171 large energy infrastructure projects that completed federal environmental impact studies between 2010 and 2018. Nearly two-thirds of solar energy projects were litigated, they found, as were 31 percent of transmission lines and 38 percent of wind energy projects. . . [L] itigation causes massive delays, raising the costs of multibillion-dollar energy projects. (Even before a project is challenged in court, the required environmental impact assessments can take as long as 14 years.)

Every serious energy analyst knows that grid modernization is urgent even if we weren’t trying to force-feed unreliable “green” energy into our system. Even Jerry Brown, in his second stint a California governor a few years back, called for significant reform of NEPA and California’s own version (CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act), after having championed those regulatory choke mechanisms back in the 1970s.

Look in the mirror, lefties.

Incidentally, parallel to the energy story it is occurring to some liberals that the same regulatory hell used to throttle energy projects has also contributed significantly to the lack of affordable housing, especially in California and other high-cost states like New York. Even the Biden administration has figured this out, recently issuing a report that concluded “meaningful change will require State and local governments to reevaluate the land-use regulations that reduce the housing supply.” But opposition to changes in housing regulation come most strongly from wealthy neighborhoods where Biden and Democrats typically receive two-thirds of the vote in elections.

Columbia University professor Dale Maharidge noted recently that in liberal Westchester County in New York, residents “plant ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs in their lawns,” but that their “message was hollow: We support you; just don’t live near us.” The blame for homelessness, Maharidge concludes, “belongs to people we might call ‘good liberals.’” It’s apparently a lesson that needs to be learned across a wide domain of issues.

And if the regulatory-litigation model doesn’t work, there is the irony that the left’s solicitude for favored “oppressed” groups is also blocking a lot of "green energy" projects. The Osage Nation in Oklahoma recently prevailed in federal court, after twelve years of litigation, resulting in the dismantling of a 150-megawatt wind project that had been built over tribal opposition. But the environmental left, having embraced demagoguery over tribal rights in an attempt to block the Dakota Access Pipeline a few years ago, is hardly in a position now to decry the claims of tribal groups to block "green energy" development.

Even if you are an enthusiast for "green energy," the lesson by now is clear: energy and environmental protection are much too important to be left to environmentalists. They screw everything up.

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, and lecturer at Berkeley Law. His most recent book is "M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom." He writes daily at Powerlineblog.com.


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3 comments on “Environmentalists vs. the Environment”

  1. in liberal Westchester County in New York, residents “plant ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs in their lawns,” but that their “message was hollow: We support you; just don’t live near us.”
    Reminds me of the joke comic Godfrey Cambridge used to tell; In the South, they don't care how close I get as long as I don't get too big; in the North, they don't care how big I get as long as I don't get too close.

  2. The topic of Nuclear Power always gives the game away. The Green Agenda includes not just shutting down Oil Coal and Gas in also includes shutting down Nuclear. That alone tells us that the Green Agenda is not to be taken seriously.

  3. When are you going to start writing for Powerline again.? You drove Mirengoff out - a prolific contributor . But substantive contributions from you have been meagre.

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