Principle Trumps Pragmatism: Grassroots Greens Campaign Against Clean Energy, American Power Act

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As the expanse of the Gulf slick widened this week and climate advocates reckoned with an American public focused on more urgent risks closer to their front doors, 15 big activist organizations and a coalition of 200 grassroots advocacy groups from across the country, many of them green, lashed the American Power Act.

Greenpeace last Thursday called the measure “more of a ‘dirty energy bailout’ bill than anything else.” In a statement issued a day earlier, the 200 small groups said the Power Act would spur coal, oil, and nuclear development,  “would be ineffective at addressing the climate crisis,” and vowed to kill the bill if the conventional energy provisions were not dropped.

That’s no surprise. The American Power Act calls for federal investments and regulatory changes designed to secure domestic supplies of conventional fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources. Oil, coal, and nuclear power represent the foundation of a profligate way of life that has put the domestic economy and environment in peril. Over the last four decades green groups built an important and effective civic movement to deal with the consequences of dirty energy.

The American Power Act, though, also contains provisions for substantive federal investments in clean energy, transit, Smart Growth, efficiency, and energy-conserving practices. And it calls for capping carbon emissions, trading carbon allowances to generate substantial new revenue, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent of their 2005 levels by 2050. Because of these provisions some of the most prominent environmental organizations support the American Power Act as a strong step in the right direction, although with reservations about the conventional energy provisions.

Green v. Green
Green versus green is nothing new in the history of American environmentalism. The competition between pragmatism and principle is an insistent undercurrent that has surfaced periodically, for example in the rivalry between the big organizations with Washington offices, and the small organizations working in the field.

The differences expressed about the American Power Act, though, may reveal a new and very troublesome dimension to the green vs. green meme. The disagreement over national climate and energy policy underscores a growing trend, little noted in the environmental movement or the media, that involves fierce grassroots campaigns in more than 30 states to defeat big clean energy projects.

The grassroots opposition to clean energy development, most visibly displayed in the nine-year battle to permit the offshore Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, is having the effect of hindering clean energy development, and by extension, climate action.

It also appears to be opening a schism in American environmentalism that could threaten the movement’s credibility. Simply put, at a time of real crisis for the economy and the environment, what kind of leadership can be expected from American environmentalists? Can American environmentalism be a major force for good if it lets ideological principle trump pragmatism?

I Was There
Full disclosure: Last year at this time I was writing about the energy rebellion sweeping the nation as citizens and small organizations worked to close coal-fired power plants, shut down mountaintop removal coal mining, protest rate hikes in utility commission hearings, and take other actions to block expansion of the use of fossil fuels. The momentum leading to the Copenhagen climate summit included significant activism at the grassroots to block conventional polluting energy sources and spur clean energy development and jobs.

Late last year, though, a small utility near where I live in northern Michigan asked me for help, under a consulting contract, to design a communications and public engagement process for their proposal to acquire 30 percent of the utility’s energy from local renewable resources. One facet of the proposal included a plan to build a 10 mw, right-sized, state of the art, clean burning, combined heat and power, wood gasification biomass plant to replace coal-fired power.

The response from some prominent community environmentalists to that idea was intense and surprising. The win for green activists, of course, was to kill the plant, which meant under the circumstances of the utility’s power supply needs continuing to generate energy from coal.

Investigation Reveals Big Trend
I spent several weeks investigating whether the push back was an anomaly or emblematic of something more significant. I found considerable evidence that the opposition to the biomass plant in northern Michigan was part of a national trend at the grassroots to oppose big clean energy projects in dozens of states.

Clean energy developers, of course, haven’t stopped proposing new projects. They are just much more aware of the civic storm such plans are capable of stirring up. Google just invested in a big wind farm in North Dakota. Scandia Wind is proposing a big offshore wind farm in Lake Michigan that has generated considerable support and opposition. Battery manufacturers are settling around Detroit, anticipating breakthroughs in development and sales of the next generation of clean vehicles. Still, the distaste for the scale and number of clean energy projects needed to supplant fossil fuels is unnerving citizens, and they are expressing their concerns in town hall meetings, active opposition campaigns, and in the media.

Last week Linda Cree, an activist in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, expressed these concerns about proposals to build industrial-scale wind farms in a forested region that is steadily losing industry and residents: “What is happening with wind power is that its potential to be an earth-gentle, inexpensive, decentralized source of energy is being co-opted by large energy firms,” she wrote on Enviromich, a statewide environmental e-mail thread. “Going with their program means mega-wind-farms and massive transmission lines – – and the ecological damage and visual blight that accompanies such large scale industrial development.  It means allowing these huge energy corporations access to great swaths of land for their lucrative projects, and encouraging Americans to feel entitled to ever greater amounts of energy.”

“Environmental Rapists?”
Added Amy Cree Dunn of Michigan’s Wild U.P., “Will the environmentalists of today become the environmental rapists of tomorrow?  I certainly hope not.  Industrial colonization is industrial colonization whether it be coal-fired power plants or a mega-windfarm off the wild shores of Lake Superior – with, of course, the accompanying web of high-voltage powerlines criss-crossing the rural-wild landscape and polluting the areas with herbicides and, that nasty phenomenon, stray voltage. ”

In response to such sentiments Barbara Hill, director of Clean Power Now, a Massachusetts non-profit environmental organization that advocated for development of the big Cape Wind offshore development, said in an interview that grassroots opposition to the tools that will help reduce use of fossil fuels and solve climate change will force the environmental community to reexamine its principles and priorities. “We have to ask what we want to accomplish as environmentalists,” Hill said. “Do we not attend change here? Do we just hold holy the things we consider sacred and the hell with development?”

Scale Up
In a new article about the opposition trend in Outside Magazine
, Randy Udall, an energy analyst in Colorado and a member of the greenest political family in America, said “renewable-energy developers are running headlong into half a century of very successful environmentalist opposition to large energy projects. He also told the magazine, “The notion that if we just cover rooftops, we can leave the deserts alone, that we don’t need new wind farms, and don’t need to build new transmission lines—that doesn’t pass the mathematical sniff test.What I say to these people is: Buy a calculator. Run the numbers. We’re going to have to scale up renewable energy in a way we can hardly imagine.

The American Power Act, as introduced, is the second major bill to recognize that point since President Obama took office. The first was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted in February 2009, which invests over $100 billion in clean energy production and practices and is one of the big financial drivers behind the new projects facing grassroots opposition. The new climate and energy bill has billions more for clean energy investment, plus cap and dividend provisions to reduce carbon emissions.

Frankly, the American Power Act provisions to produce more conventional fuel sources make sense, too, even if they curl an environmentalists’ hair. They are meant to buy time until the clean energy economy takes hold, and stave off the continued demise or even the collapse of the quality of life most Americans understand is at grave risk.

By allying themselves with that reality, disturbing as it is, environmentalists nevertheless have a shot with the American Power Act to take meaningful steps to begin curbing the consequences of climate change. Is American environmentalism mature and prudent enough to recognize that opportunity? Let’s hope so.

— Keith Schneider

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One comment on “Principle Trumps Pragmatism: Grassroots Greens Campaign Against Clean Energy, American Power Act

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