Can Environmental Advocacy Organizations be Good Stewards of the Environment?

An interesting drama is playing out in the Mojave Desert where major national environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council among others, are on board with a plan to effectively destroy six-square miles of public lands. The project is a national energy pet project-a solar energy production facility. According to the Los Angeles Times (Feb 5, 2012),

“Even if only a few of the proposed projects are built, hundreds of square miles of wild land will be scraped clear. Several thousand miles of power transmission corridors will be created.

The desert will be scarred well beyond a human life span, and no amount of mitigation will repair it, according to scores of federal and state environmental reviews.

“The scale of impacts that we are facing, collectively across the desert, is phenomenal,” said Dennis Schramm, former superintendent at neighboring Mojave National Preserve. “The reality of the Ivanpah project is that what it will look like on the ground is worse than any of the analyses predicted.”

The organizations are justifying their action because they care more about climate change than the environment. But the effectiveness of this project in making a meaningful dent in US greenhouse gas emissions is far from certain. The plant will provide peak power for just 140,000 users. Taxpayers are subsidizing up to 80 percent of the costs for the $2 billion project, according to the LA Times, and energy bills are still going to go up 50 percent if they use it.

The willingness of the national organizations to bargain away real-world, earth-bound enviornmental stewardship for abstract policy objectives such as climate change should be worrying. How much of the environment are they willing to trade off for climate change, particularly since virtually no meaingful metrics exist for judging the effectiveness of this plant in meeting climate change goals which are global in scale? And the vast majority of greenhouse gases that will be released into the atmosphere over the next 50 years will come from rapidly industrializing countries such as China and India, regardless of what the US can accomplish?

Some of these organizations, the Sierra Club in particular, have squelched local chapters interested in challenging the project. Again according to the Los Angeles Times:

“Mainstream environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have been largely mute, having traded the picket line for a seat at the table when development plans were drawn.

“The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the nation’s most aggressively litigious environmental groups, has not challenged the Ivanpah project. It signed a confidential agreement not to oppose the project in exchange for concessions for the desert tortoise — mandating that BrightSource buy land elsewhere for conservation.

“Some 24 environmental groups signed statements largely supporting the aims of solar developers. National environmental groups joined BrightSource and other solar companies in a letter sent Dec. 14 to the White House, asking the president to continue a federal renewable-energy subsidy.

The national office of the Sierra Club has had to quash local chapters’ opposition to some solar projects, sending out a 42-page directive making it clear that the club’s national policy goals superseded the objections of a local group. Animosity bubbled over after a local Southern California chapter was told to refrain from opposing solar projects.”

So, with the major groups at the bargaining table with the government, whose watching out for the environment in our own backyards?