By Roger Caiazza, Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York
Oliver McPherson-Smith from the American Consumer Institute writes that “To fight climate change, President Biden needs to retire NEPA”. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires Federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of proposed major Federal actions prior to making decisions. McPherson-Smith argues that “Biden needs to take the climate fight to NEPA and its byzantine review process.” The parallel between the infamous Vietnam War era quotation “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” and this argument was too tempting to not comment.
NEPA ensures that any actions by Federal agencies consider significant environmental consequences through a proscribed environmental assessment procedure. Section 102 of NEPA establishes procedural requirements, applying that national policy to proposals for major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment by requiring Federal agencies to prepare a detailed statement on: (1) the environmental impact of the proposed action; (2) any adverse effects that cannot be avoided; (3) alternatives to the proposed action; (4) the relationship between local short-term uses of man’s environment and the maintenance and enhancement of long-term productivity; and (5) any irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources that would be involved in the proposed action. 42 U.S.C. 4332(2)(C). It has spawned similar requirements at many jurisdictions and certainly can be characterized as a “byzantine” process. On the other hand, environmental quality has certainly improved since the law was signed in 1970.
McPherson-Smith’s background shows no apparent relevant background with NEPA. He “writes about economic policy for the American Consumer Institute. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Land Economy from the University of Cambridge, before working as a television journalist in the Middle East and Africa. Oliver received his Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University and is currently completing a DPhil in Politics at the University of Oxford.”
“The 2035 carbon pollution-free electricity target is just one heady aspiration within Biden’s remarkably ambitious climate agenda. By teaching miners to code, building charging stations for Tesla owners, and increasing the number of union membership subscriptions, Biden’s team are sparing no creativity to reshape America, while trying to make the economy “net-zero” by 2050 along the way.”
“But the administration’s renewable ambitions are on a collision course with the regulatory roadblocks of reality, particularly due to the bureaucratic process associated with the National Environmental Policy Act. Enacted in 1970, NEPA introduced the basic premise that federal agencies must take note of how their actions affect the environment. These actions include issuing grants, loans, and permits to private companies, triggering the need for an environmental assessment (EA) or a longer environmental impact statement (EIS).”
“However, no good deed goes unpunished. Despite the legislation’s basic, common-sense agenda, NEPA has become a convenient tool for opponents of infrastructural expansion to stall development through lengthy and expensive court cases. Given the risk of drawn-out litigation, EAs and EISs have become mammoth tasks that can take years upon years to complete. For example, EISs that were published in 2018 were already 4.9 years in the making.”
New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) is a test bed for national GHG emission reduction programs. Ever the leader in virtue signaling New York has a permitting process for major electric generating facilities that makes the NEPA requirements pale in comparison. Once it became clear that renewable projects would have to endure that process, Governor Cuomo stuck the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act (AREGCBA) into the FY2020-2021 state budget at the height of the uncertainty regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. AREGCBA is best described by a knowledgeable friend as “Once again the idiots in Albany have proven they are willing to dive from the high board without looking to see if there is any water in the pool.” The end result is that New York now has a Office of Renewable Energy Siting that will “Streamline and expedite the siting of major renewable energy projects and associated transmission facilities to help achieve the State’s clean energy and climate goals, while maintaining the State’s strong environmental and public participation standards”. Cynics like me see this as another state bureaucracy that will run roughshod over local concerns about renewable development in their communities.
As part of the CLCPA process to meet the 2030 target of a 40% reduction of GHG emissions from 1990 levels, seven advisory panels have submitted their enabling strategies to the Climate Action Council. I have been reviewing and commenting on these strategies and want to highlight one particular inconsistency. The Agriculture and Forestry panel recommended maintaining current farmland and forests levels as a carbon sequestration strategy. The Land Use and Local Government panel recommended incentives for clean energy siting development without acknowledging the space requirements of diffuse solar and wind energy. As a result, there is a major inconsistency between the agriculture and forestry enabling strategy to minizine the loss of farmlands and forests versus the land use planning strategy that does not acknowledge the conflicting need to develop those areas for renewable energy.
The fact is that in order to transition the electric energy system to wind and solar resources will require enormous numbers of turbines and panels. New York’s current wind capacity is just under 2,000 MW of on-shore wind and no off-shore wind. A recent study of the resources necessary for the New York transition estimated 35,200 MW of on-shore wind and 21,063 MW of off-shore wind. Comparing the space necessary for just the wind turbines needed to the amount of agricultural land suggests that if all the wind turbines were sited on agricultural land it would take up over half. There is no way that this won’t be a significant land use issue.
The environmental problem is cumulative environmental impacts. In New York one wind farm environmental impact analysis estimated that 85 bald eagles would be killed at a 124 MW wind facility over the 30-year lifetime of the project. Extrapolating that to the total number of turbines needed comes up with an estimate of hundreds of bald eagles per year. Keep in mind that this is just the direct environmental cost. That does not include the impacts of rare earth metal mining for the materials needed for the turbines or construction impacts of the sprawling wind facilities.
The innumerate of society that imagine the transition to Biden’s 2035 carbon pollution-free electricity target will have such insignificant environmental impacts that they should be ignored because of the existential threat of climate change are wrong on many levels. Every time we see this baloney, we all need to speak up and say check the numbers. Otherwise, we could see the environment destroyed to save it from a non-existent threat.