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Environment

Looming Enviro Wars

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During George W. Bush's two terms, environmentalists and archaeologists complained (with justification) that the oil & gas industry was allowed to run roughshod over Western public lands. I wrote a bunch about this for numerous magazines, from Audubon and Mother Jones to High Country News and Archaeology. The same question arose in all these stories: can natural gas development coexist harmoniously with the preservation of scenic, environmental and cultural resources? Well, anyone who followed this issue during W's era would obviously answer no, and that's because the deck was stacked in favor of the oil & gas industry. Drilling permits were handed out like M & M's. The two main overseers of Western public lands, the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, exerted negligible regulatory oversight, with terrible consequences for wildlife, air quality, and ancient archaeology. There was no "multiple use" balance at all. One use took precedent over all others: gas drilling. So now we have a new Administration that is promoting a different form of energy development. And guess what? That same question is popping up again, as this NYT story illustrates. But this time, the conflict is not over drilling rigs, but over whether solar and wind farms can coexist in spectacular places like the Mojave desert. As Todd Woody writes in his Times story, this latest debate over multiple use on public lands

encapsulates a rising tension between two goals held by environmental groups: preservation of wild lands and ambitious efforts to combat global warming. Not only is the desert land some of the sunniest in the country, and thus suitable for large-scale power production, it is also some of the most scenic territory in the West. The Mojave lands have sweeping vistas of an ancient landscape that is home to desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, fringe-toed lizards and other rare animals and plants.

This new debate is likely to be fractious in the environmental community, pitting climate change advocates against preservationists. There will also be rich doses of irony, courtesy of Cape wind opponent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is upset that Senator Diane Feinstein has kept renewable energy projects from going forward in areas of the Mojave desert that are slated to become National Monuments. Kennedy indignantly tells the Times:

This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Senator Feinstein shouldn't be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review.

You have to admire his chutzpa. In the way this issue is now playing out--at least with respect to the Mojave lands--there are some interesting parallels beween the Bush Administation's energy policy by executive decree and Senator Feinstein's legislative fiat powers. As the Times notes:

Mrs. Feinstein heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Interior Department, giving her substantial clout over that agency, which manages the government's landholdings. Her intervention in the Mojave means it will be more difficult for California utilities to achieve a goal, set by the state, of obtaining a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020; projects in the monument area could have supplied a substantial portion of that power.

It'll be interesting to see how environmental magazines cover this, including the one I worked at for nearly ten years, until 2008. Climate change is the big environmental issue of our time; it really has overtaken all other issues, especially in the larger national debate. So it stands to reason that a headlong clash between competing environmental goals will provide much fodder for continuing coverage by environmental journalists. As I said, we'll see.

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