As Gulf Slick Spreads Environmental Movement Takes Unexpected Heat

Gulf Oil Spill

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Laureate economist,  Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The New York Times, and friend of most things green wrote a piece over the weekend that should give environmentalists heartache. In a column about the big Gulf oil spill, Krugman described how the environmental movement has been steadily losing political momentum because it’s been so successful in scrubbing the skies and clearing the waters of the visible hazards of pollution. He also lays the blame for the movement’s diminishing influence on the persistent attacks of the right who constructed “a narrative in which advocates of strong environmental protection were either extremists — “eco-Nazis,” according to Rush Limbaugh — or effete liberal snobs trying to impose their aesthetic preferences on ordinary Americans.”

Krugman then adds this: “I’m sorry to say that the long effort to block construction of a wind farm off Cape Cod — which may finally be over thanks to the Obama administration — played right into that caricature.” Ouch!

For any reasoned environmental advocate, myself included, that is a warning sign of the damage to the movement’s credibility that is gradually unfolding as a result of the schism between national environmental leaders — strong advocates for clean energy investment and projects — and grassroots environmental organizations working so hard in more than 30 states to halt the projects in their communities.

The juxtaposition of an expanding environmental disaster in the Gulf — an event that unites all of environmentalism — with the grassroots push back on the available alternatives to fossil fuel has proven irresistible to some writers and prompted pleas of sanity from clean energy advocates and prominent environmentalists.

In a letter to the editor last week responding to a town councilor’s criticism regarding Cape Wind’s decision to purchase turbines from the German manufacturer Siemens, Barbara Hill, the executive director of Clean Power Now made this statement.

Back in 2003, GE had a 3.6-megawatt turbine it was ready to begin manufacturing in the U.S.; but the resistance in Massachusetts from the well-funded and politically connected opposition at that time, including the late Sen. Kennedy, Gov. Romney and the Barnstable Town Council, led it to move to a place that was wind friendly: China. The only offshore wind turbine manufacturers are overseas, because that is where the market is — as well as the national policies and subsidies to advance the industry and the associated jobs. And it doesn’t take nine years to get an offshore wind project fully permitted. Had opponents focused on a larger vision instead of their myopic view we would be the benefactors of all those jobs and economic opportunities.”

Bill McKibben, the author and environmentalist, also pleaded last year with local green organizers to consider the outcomes of their protest, which is to raise concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere steadily beyond the safe threshold of 350 ppm. “We are already well beyond 350 and accelerating rapidly in the wrong direction,” he wrote. “So when local efforts to delay or stop low-carbon energy projects come into conflict with the imperative to act urgently on global warming, they have to take second place. Because even if we win every other battle, if we lose 350, it won’t make any difference at all. You can “keep” every river and bay and lake and mountain and wilderness, but if the temperature goes up 3 degrees globally, it won’t matter. The fish that live there won’t be able to survive, the trees that anchor the landscape will die, the coral reefs will bleach and crumble. Whatever the particular part of the world that we’re each working on, it’s still a part of the world. Global warming is the whole thing.”

And Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki echoed that concern in an article last year. “I’m worried about the escalation of rhetoric on both sides,” said Suzuki. “Yes, it is urgent that we find ways to tackle the problems caused by fossil-fuel use and excessive energy consumption. And it is true that some opponents of technologies such as wind power are motivated more by NIMBY self-interest than science or true environmental concerns.”

— Keith Schneider

A Miserable Week

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A week that began with a political blow – the disruption of the bipartisan Senate team drawing up climate and energy legislation – ended in environmental disaster. A vicious oil spill, produced by the explosion and sinking last week of the Deep Horizon drilling rig, inundated the Gulf shoreline and threatened to wreck the aquatic diversity that makes the Louisiana coast one of the world’s most productive fisheries.

Twenty one years ago, as a reporter for the New York Times, I spent weeks in Alaska covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and years afterward reporting on its lingering ecological and economic damage. The Gulf spill is fortified by 5,000 barrels of leaking oil a day (at least that’s what was said on Friday though others say the amount is much greater)  and there is no end in sight. Despite its assurances in public testimony and television commercials, oil companies have no proven techniques to penetrate the ink-black waters and plug the source a mile beneath the surface. The gulf spill could become the most significant oil-related disaster in the nation’s history.

In every way conceivable the Gulf spill is a dismal display of the runaway risks for a nation devoted to petroleum. Oil spills, like blood that gushes from a severed artery, attract public attention and civic lament. But what most of America really cares about is that the national blood pressure gauge – the price of gasoline – doesn’t soar.

That’s why two years ago the chant of “drill baby drill” looked for a time to be enough of an energy policy to catapult John McCain to the White House. Just a month ago President Barack Obama, arguing that it was needed to secure domestic energy needs, lifted the federal moratorium on offshore drilling and opened huge expanses of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to new exploration.

Yesterday, the administration put that decision in abeyance pending federal inspections of existing offshore Gulf rigs and a clearer understanding of how the spill affects public attitudes and policy. And Sunday, the president is scheduled to fly to Louisiana to view the expanding mess for himself.

Indeed, during a week that the EPA made public a new assessment of the sweeping effects of a warming atmosphere in the United States, and the nation’s first offshore wind farm received federal approval, the unanswered question is how much of an impression the Gulf spill will have on anything other than the wild creatures in its path.

The spill, dark and menacing and slow moving, is an apt metaphor for the pace and condition of America’s promised transition from fossil fuel to clean energy alternatives. Andrea Buffa, a writer at the Apollo Alliance, reported this week that some businesses are saying publicly that without federal climate and clean energy policies, more clean energy operations will move abroad to countries that are committed to clean energy. In an interview in the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday, Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, said that if the United States doesn’t adopt clean energy policies, GE will have to go overseas. “We have to go where the action is,” he said.

By any measure of economic and environmental reason the spill should resonate with the public and with lawmakers. It should convince Senator Lindsey Graham to rejoin Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman in introducing a climate and energy bill fit for the 21st century. In an era of warming temperatures and stone cold inflexible politics, it may be the best outcome from such a miserable week.

— Keith Schneider

Earth, Wind, Fire On Day of Onrushing Risks

The accelerating consequences of the warming Earth, the hazards associated with increasing reliance on fossil fuels, the promise of big clean energy projects, and the difficulties in advancing a national climate and energy policy fit for the 21st century came into sharp focus today in Washington and across the nation.

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In Boston, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that aftter nine years of public confrontation, the United States had reached a decision to approve crucial permits to build 130 utility-scale windmills off the coast of Nantucket in Massachusetts. The Interior secretary’s decision, according to U.S. regulators, may help speed construction of the first offshore wind farm in the United States. But that is not at all assured as an alliance of local environmental organizations and Indian tribes who see the windfarm as an intrusion vow to press their opposition in the courts.

Salazar’s announcement was made within minutes of a statement by the U.S. Coast Guard, which was preparing to ignite a portion of the huge oil slick from last week’s explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to test whether burning some of the crude might prevent oil from reaching the Louisiana Coast.

In Washington, a new EPA assessment of how climate change is affecting precipitation, growing seasons, bird migrations, and 21 other indicators served as a kind of insistent background music to the raw and clamorous political combat that has blocked a trio of Senators from New England and South Carolina from introducing of a bipartisan climate and energy bill they have worked on for months.

There is still no clear indication that the disruption that caused the delay this week – a bid by the Democratic Senate majority leader to consider immigration reform before the climate and energy bill — will be resolved. But news organizations are reporting that the draft bill has been sent to the EPA for analysis, a crucial step required for full Senate floor debate.

Bound Up In The Ropes of Economic, Political Circumstance
Though today’s events occurred separately, they nevertheless formed the political, environmental, and scientific boundary lines of an era of economic transition that is leadng the U.S. to a place it has rarely been before – uncertain, wavering, and for every potentially small step forward, three steps are in retreat in the face of onrushing risks. Those include what the EPA on Tuesday called “indisputable evidence” that human activities are producing sweeping alterations to the planet’s environment.

The federal approval of the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, and the test burn in Louisiana served as the big climate and energy news of the day. Arguably, though, the more durable and significant advance of the week was the EPA’s new assessment, “Climate Change Indicators in the United States,” which was released on Tuesday.

“Over the last several decades, evidence of human influences on climate change has become increasingly clear and compelling,” said the report’s authors, which included five U.S. departments and agencies, six American research universities, three non-profit organizations, and contributions from government researchers in Japan, Australia, and Bermuda. “There is indisputable evidence that human activities such as electricity production and transportation are adding to the concentrations of greenhouse gases that are already naturally present in the atmosphere. These heat-trapping gases are now at record-high levels in the atmosphere compared with the recent and distant past.”

Indicators – Not Good
The EPA study, which was made public a week after the State Department released a 193-draft report that argued climate change posed a grave threat to the global economy, describes the accelerating consequences in the United States and globally of a warming planet. Those include rising sea levels, melting glaciers, lengthening growing seasons, intensifying lethal storms, steadily raising temperatures, aggravating heat-related illnesss, draining snowpacks of moisture, and wildlife pushed outside their traditional ranges.

Though many of the details are not new, the compendium of scientific evidence, rigorously gathered and compellingly presented, strengthen the narrative of swift change in the natural world that opponents of climate science have tried for years to dismiss. “These indicators show us that climate change is a very real problem with impacts that are already being seen,” said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

A Sampling of Consequences The 24 climate change indicators and a sampling of the agency’s findings are:

U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: From 1990 to 2008, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities increased 14 percent to nearly 7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities rose 26 percent from 1990 to 2005, to 38 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. CO2, which accounts for three-quarters of all global greenhouse gas emissions, increased 31 percent.

Atmospheric Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases: Levels of CO2 are higher now than they have been in thousands of years, “even after accounting for natural fluctuations.” Concentrations have risen from 270 ppm to almost 390 ppm.

Climate Forcing: From 1990 to 2008, scientists calculated a 26 percent increase in the absorption of energy in tge atmosphere, or “radiative forcing.”

U.S. and Global Temperature: Seven of the top 10 warmest years on record for the continental U.S. have occurred since 1990, and the last 10 five-year periods have the warmest five-year periods on record. The first decade of the 21st century was the warmest on record worldwide. Average temperatures in the lower 48 states have risen an average 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1901, and the rate of increase has accelerated over the last 30 years.

Heat Waves: The frequency of heat waves and the percentage of the United States experiencing heat waves has increased since the 1970s. The Dust Bowl decade of the 1930s remains the record-holder for heat waves.

Drought: During the first decade of the 21st century 30 to 60 percent of the U.S. experienced drought, but the indicator is too new to determine whether droughts are increasing or decreasing.

U.S. and Global Precipitation: Average rain and snowfall has increased in the U.S. and globally. In the continental U.S. precipitation has increased at a rate of 6.4 percent per century since 1901, Globally, precipitation has increased 2 percent per century. Conditions vary within regions. Parts of the Southwest, and Hawaii have seen a decrease in precipitation.

Heavy Precipitation: Intense “single-day events” or very heavy rainfall is increasing. Eight of the 10 worst years for extreme rainfall in the United States have occurred since 1990.

Tropical Cycle Intensity: The intensity of tropical storms in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico is increasing. Six of the 10 most active hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s.

Ocean Heat: Since the 1950s the level of heat stored in the world’s oceans has risen. EPA notes that the data interpretations vary as scientists are working with different measuring techniques.

Sea Surface Temperature: Temperatures rose an average of 0.12 degrees per decade from 1901 through 2009, with the fastest rise over the past 30 years.

Sea Level: Oceans have risen an average of six-tenths of an inch per decade since the 1870s.

Ocean Acidity: Ocean acidity has increased.

Arctic Sea Ice: The Arctic is melting. The expanse of Arctic ice in 2009 was 24 percent less than the area covered on average from 1979 to 2000.

Glaciers: Glaciers globally are receding at a quickening pace and have lost more than 2,000 cubic miles of water since 1960, contributing to the rise in sea level.

Lake Ice: Lakes in the northern U.S. are staying ice-free about one to two days longer each decade since the late 1800s.

Snow Cover: North American snow cover has decreased steadily, from 3.4 million square miles in the 1970s to 3.18 million in the first decade of this century.

Snowpack: The depth of snow in early spring has, on average, decreased in the western U.S., with some areas seeing a decline of more than 75 percent between 1950 and 2000.

Heat-Related Deaths: Heat-related illnesses caused over 6,000 deaths in the U.S. since 1980. But the data classifying deaths as heat-related is new, and the EPA acknowledges there is considerable year-to-year variability and it is difficult to discern long-term trends.

Length of Growing Season: Earlier spring warming and later fall frosts have increased the average length of the growing season in the lower 48 states by about two weeks since the start of the 20th century. The trend is most apparent in the West.

Plant Hardiness Zones: Higher winter temperatures since 1990 in most parts of the country have shifted northward the region where species of plants are able to thrive.

Leaf and Bloom Dates: Leaves are emerging, and lilacs and honeysuckle are blooming slightly earlier than a century ago. EPA notes that it’s difficult to determine if the observations are statistically meaningful.

Bird Wintering Ranges: Studies have found birds in North America have shifted their wintering grounds an average of 35 miles northward over the past half century, and a few species are moving hundreds of miles farther north and further inland.

“I have seen most of these data before, but it’s extremely useful to have it all in one place and presented in a visually appealing—and appalling—fashion,” wrote Dan Lashof, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center in Washington. “Over the last two decades scientists have patiently assembled the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle into a crystal clear picture of how our planet is changing. Professional climate science deniers will continue to focus on the handful of pieces that have been misplaced or lost under the sofa. But for everyone else there is no denying that this picture spells trouble.”

— Keith Schneider

Cape Wind Awaits Federal Approval

cape-wind-farmAs the 40th anniversary of Earth Day draws closer, wind energy developers in Massachusetts are awaiting word from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar about a permit to proceed. Cape Wind, which wants to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm near Nantucket, earlier this month reached agreement with Siemens to purchase 130 turbines, a move praised by Massachusetts Democratic Governor Deval Patrick and Ian Bowles, the Massachusetts secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

It’s difficult to see how the Obama administration, which pressed for more than $100 billion in clean energy investment in last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus bill), would disapprove the Cape Wind permit. The project, though, has come under fire from the Kennedys and other prominent Massachusetts families. And the fight over whether to proceed has gone on for most of a decade.

Like Michigan, some Massachusetts citizens and grassroots environmental organizations are fighting the advent of the clean energy transition with everything they’ve got. Massachusetts last year put a moratorium on wood biomass development pending the completion of an independent analysis of the risks that is due to be finished by June 1. And wind projects are not only opposed off Nantucket. Several more on Cape Cod have come under fire from citizens.

In Michigan, meanwhile, offshore wind projects in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan have raised concerns, largely due to aesthetic reasons. And a state-of-the-art wood biomass plant has caused a small ruckus in Traverse City, where critics assert it will result in a “slaughter” of the state’s forest. Fuss disclosure: I am assisting the utility in its public communications and engagement strategy.

A friend of mine, a prominent editor in Traverse City, called the other day to express is his dismay at the stridency, crazy facts, outright wrong assertions and scare tactics, even extremism deployed by a number of environmental voices in the biomass debate. “I always believed that what lay behind so much of the local environmental movement here was just NIMBYism,” he said. “This debate has just confirmed it.”

Indeed, it’s not a proud moment for those of us who’ve been involved a long time and sweat the details of public campaigning, applying real facts, reason, maturity and pragmatism in struggles as important as the clean energy transition is to northern Michigan, the state, and the nation.

— Keith Schneider

Let Wind Energy Blow? Not In These Places

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Next month Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is scheduled to rule on a proposal to build one of the most contentious clean energy projects in the country. It is a 420-megawatt offshore wind farm in Massachusetts called Cape Wind. Audra Parker, the young leader of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, has emerged as a local public interest celebrity as a result of her work to prevent developers from constructing 130 turbines five miles out in Nantucket Sound.

The long battle over Cape Wind, the granddaddy of citizen opposition campaigns to clean energy development, is a reflection of many other such battles across the country, and emblematic of the schism in the environmental community over clean energy development and climate action. This post documents grassroots activism opposing wind energy projects in 12 more states.

Many of my environmental friends are not that concerned, arguing that grassroots opposition represents the give-and-take, checks and balances that have always existed in the green community. My reporting indicates that it could be much more significant than that, and may invite criticism from environmentalism’s opponents.

On the one hand, said a letter this week in my hometown weekly, the Benzie Record-Patriot, environmental organizations have pushed hard for clean energy investment and action to solve global warming. On the other groups big and small assert this or that project is unfit for construction. I’m documenting that opposition in this and a number of other posts.

With wind the arguments generally focus around noise, viewsheds, light flicker, location, and a few more issues. But victory for wind opponents is no victory because the default position now and for the time being is almost always generating power with more fossil fuel, mostly coal. In the risk-benefit analysis how is that coal is seen as less risky than wind?

Nevertheless grassroots activists fighting clean energy are gaining fame and plenty of support. On Nantucket, Audra Parker counts the Kennedy family as allies, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s senior environmental attorneys, though the NRDC says the windfarm should be built. The state historic preservation officer also opposes the project because of its location in an area viewed as historically significant, as well as sacred to a number of native American tribes.

Greenpeace supports the project, which was initially proposed almost a decade ago, along with the World Wildlife Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Dr. George Woodwell, the renowned ecologist and the founder of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.

Many of the details of the opposition to the Nantucket Sound development — viewsheds, NIMBYism, scale of the machines, proximity to sacred ground — are consistent with another fight over wind energy nearby on Cape Cod. Wellfleet officials want to place one windmill on town land close to Cape Cod National Seashore, but neighbors are organizing to stop the project.

A year ago, authorities in New York and in Ontario identified Lake Ontario and Lake Erie as likely sources of offshore wind power. In mid-April 2009 the New York Power Authority unveiled big offshore projects for both lakes. Some of the windfarms would consist of 500 turbines towering 45o feet above the lake. Shoreline owners in  Jefferson, Oswego, Cayuga and Wayne counties in New York went to work to halt the idea, which they accomplished earlier this year.

The issues included scale, sediments, transmission lines, water quality, boating safety, fisheries, subsidies, efficiency, and aesthetics, loss of tax base. “The projects are bad community planning, especially in the water. People choose to live in and visit waterfront communities for the view and relaxation. These projects destroy the view, create noise and other pollution and devalue property,” wrote Robert E. Aliasso Jr. and Tom Bishop, co-chairs of the Coalition for the Preservation of the Golden Crescent and 1000 Islands Region.

In Minnesota a proposal to build 52 turbines producing 78 megawatts of power over 32,000 acres in five townships near Red Wing, south of Minneapolis, is running into local opposition. Steve Groth, a rural landowner, has asked Goodhue County to amend the county’s zoning ordinance to establish a yearlong moratorium on wind development to study potential health and safety concerns. He also wants the PAC to increase setbacks between turbines and non-participating dwellings from the state-mandated 750 feet to 3,168 feet. He also wants to increase setbacks between turbines and homes from the state-mandated 750 feet to more than half a mile. The proposal has generated resistance from wind developers, who view Goodhue as a likely site for wind development.

In Michigan, wind development has prompted grassroots opposition in the Thumb region, near the Lake Huron coast, where landowners are objecting to noise and vibration. And on the other side of the state, where Lake Michigan lies, a proposal to build a large offshore wind farm near Luddington has prompted howls of protest from shoreline land owners. The French company that proposed the project has scaled back the number of windmills it wants to build. The state established a blue ribbon committee to develop siting guidelines and regulations.

In Vermont,  a wind project proposed for Herrick Mountain in Ira generated opposition from residents and an ecologist with the Fish and Wildlife Department who said in a letter to the developer that it would damage the Green Mountain ecosystem. The project, proposed by Vermont Community Wind Farm, has been repeatedly attacked, principally for the potential effect it could have of the  ridgeline, along with visual and noise issues.

Citizen opposition in Vermont also has  erupted in other communities, including over a 16-turbine project by First Wind Corp. in Sheffield. But Vermont residents also are supporting some big wind projects, among them a project by Green Mountain Power Corp. and Vermont Electric Co-Op to build up to two dozen 400-foot tall wind turbines along a three-mile stretch of Lowell Mountain ridgeline near Lowell. The windmills, built mostly on private land, would generate up to 63 megawatts of power – enough to power about 20,000 homes. Earlier this month the Kingdom Community Wind project was approved by residents 342-114.

Maine Governor John Baldacci has stirred a hornet’s nest of grassroots opposition with his campaign to speed wind farm developments on and offshore. Citizens in Penobscot County filed suit against a $130 million 40-turbine windfarm to be built on a ridgeline, and earlier this month lost the case in the Maine Supreme Court.

Maine’s Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power is pushing the governor and the state to issue a moratorium on industrial wind power projects until adequate noise regulations are implemented. Baldacci is resisting the effort, and he is supported by a number of the state’s editorial boards.

In Rhode Island, opposition is mounting to an offshore wind farm near Block Island. Eight wind turbines are proposed in the ocean three miles southeast of Block Island. They will rise 450 feet above the water from steel frames anchored to the ocean floor. And residents of New Shoreham aren’t thrilled.

In Oregon, a Texas company has stirred opposition to its proposal to build a wind project across 47,000 acres on the slopes of Craig Mountain that overlook two sides of Union. The Antelope Wind Power Project calls for 182 turbine. Union opposition focuses on spoiled views, and damage to wildlife habitat. The City Council declared its opposition to the project in December, and a hastily formed group papered the town with “Say NO” posters.

In Illinois, residents of Dekalb County have battled wind farm proposals for 7 years, arguing that they cause illness, nuisance, noise, and other problems.

In Pennsylvania, a wind farm proposal has sparked a fight in Butler Township.

In Wisconsin, Invenergy seeks state approval to build 100 turbines in four communities in what would be Brown County’s first major commercial wind farm. The Ledge Wind Energy Park would have the capacity to generate enough electricity for 40,000 homes. Critics are trying to stop the project and among its many arguments — most of which are consistent with other battles over wind farms — is a new one. They argue the turbines would interfere with nearby telecommunications towers, a point disputed by the county’s emergency safety officials.

In Wyoming, resistance to wind farms appears to come primarily from the fossil fuel industry, which doesn’t want the competition.

Three years ago billboards along I-70 in Kansas protested against the “industrialization” of rural parts of the state as large-scale wind farm development advanced. “Such opposition to wind farm development–and related transmission–threatens to slow growth in parts of the country where populations are small, viewsheds are wide and wind resources are robust,” wrote David Wagman, chief editor of Renewable Energy World Magazine, in February.

How significant is this push back on renewable energy development? Here’s what Gabriel Alonso, CEO, Horizon Wind Energy said recently: “We have 19,000 megawatts of wind energy under development throughout 22 states. We have run, in some specific cases, into opposition. But you need to differentiate between three people making a lot of noise or re opposition within the community. Normally when we peel back the onion, we always find out that we are talking about three people who have economic, real-estate or some sort of interests, and we are conflicting with those interests. So I do not consider ‘not in my backyard’ being a real fundamental issue for us to site projects.”

Is Alonso right? Instinct says he should know. But in so many states the fights over wind are fierce and driven in too many cases by personal sensibility and not keen grappling with the alternative, which is almost always more coal. It’s not like battling a Wal-Mart and winning a wetland and a downtown business association capable of keeping its members prosperous. It’s not like killing a highway and getting a beautiful river valley. Killing a wind farm generally means getting the same-old, which is coal.

— Keith Schneider