Commentary

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?

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.