Impossible to Please
Environmentalists find fault with alternative energy options
By Lisa Baker

By all rights, environmentalists should be ecstatic.

Not since the advent of recycling has their agenda been more fully embraced by the mainstream.

It’s all because of global warming, the theoretical calamity that has claimed the hearts and minds of those coveted uncommitted: the folks whose environmental heartstrings haven’t been pulled in decades. The folks whose environmental urges have never gone further than preparing for weekly curbside pickup.

Now they’re talking about the weather in concerned tones, showing up voluntarily at movie theaters to see Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and spending freely for hybrid cars.

Acid rain was never this popular.

Chloro-fluorocarbons might have been, but hey end up a brief flirtation that resulted in slightly higher use of roll-on deodorant.

And the spotted owl? It may have tanked most logging operations on federal lands and collapsed much of the timber industry in the Northwest in the 1990s, but all of that was accomplished with lawsuits and without much popular appeal.

Even the polluted Willamette River has captured little mainstream imagination. And Save the Salmon? Why? Is the price going up?

It is global warming that has entered the scene with spot-on timing — timing that places it at the table with the war in Iraq and rising gas prices — at the same table with Americans who aren’t particularly ruffled about the environment but are worried that the country’s continuing petroleum-dependence puts it at the mercy of its enemies.

Suddenly, the joining of the two issues, oil dependency and the potential reality of climate change, is spurring a reshuffling of priorities where the established Oregon marquee fights — sensitive birds vs. tourism on the coast, other sensitive birds vs. board feet in the forest, Smoky Bear vs. Mother Nature, fish vs. power — appear comparatively puny and their environmental solutions too mutually exclusive to contend on equal footing with global or economic calamity.

Industry is on board with the new priority as it considers the possibility of interruptions in both petroleum supply and energy and the looming potential for astronomical price hikes.

On board for what? Renewables, of course. Clean energy. Green energy. Energy from sources independent of petroleum that do not release so-called greenhouse gases — those carbon emissions some believe are causing a menopausal hot flash in global climate that will be catastrophic to the environment, either sooner or later.

Given the popular appeal of new energy, you would think development of the various forms would be a slam dunk and that the debate would be the traditional one between industry and environmental groups, where industry argues for energy to be reliable and affordable and environmentalists cheer for unconditional clean.

And indeed, that argument is happening. But there is another one wholly-unexpected by observers: the debate among environmentalists about whether several of these — any of these — alt-energy sources are really green after all.

At the very moment green energy is receiving serious attention from mainstreamers and decisionmakers, many environmentalists are backing away from their previous recommendations and expressing distaste about their own former laundry list of preferred renewables.

The reversal has some questioning the motives of the movement.

Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, noticed the phenomenon early on in her meetings with the governor’s Renewable Energy Working Group, where business, environmentalists, renewable energy producers, and utility representatives are charged with developing a portfolio of new energy sources for Oregon. She says there is no consensus among environmentalists on what is considered green or clean, and she says that the environmental movement appears to be divided, with each group rallying around its own particular cause.

The fault line has formed primarily between those whose primary raison d’etre is global warming and those who’ve been treading ecological waters in Oregon for decades on the part of salmon, trees or various habitats.

For climate change activists, nearly every kind of non-carbon-emitting energy is on the table. For many of the others, nearly every energy system is flawed and compromised in some elemental way.

How will environmentalists come up with a united front behind a single plan? “I have no idea,” Smith says. “It’s been a real eye-opener for me…The wind people have one idea, the solar people another. There are so many issues.”


Take hydropower. The agreed-upon environmentalist position in the Northwest is decidedly anti-hydroelectric and has been for decades. The stated reason: salmon. The more ardent activists have advocated removal of dams, not setting more up.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s plan for forcing use of renewables in Oregon, called 25-by-25 (25 percent of the state’s energy must come from renewables within 25 years) actually omits hydropower as one source of green energy, although it provides 44 percent of the state’s energy needs already. The reasoning? That Oregon would not strive for significant increase in use of new energy sources if it could depend on hydro to fulfill its quota.

Whatever the reasoning, it appears global warming activists did not get that memo.

Kevin Considine, Oregon Environmental Council’s program director for sustainable economy, says it’s a mistake not to count hydroelectric as a viable player. “We have a lot of hydropower in the Northwest and none of it would qualify (as renewable) currently. Is it like punishing the good child? Well, yeah…Anything that has the least amount of carbon (emission) possible should be highest on the list.”

Other environmentalists disagree. Vehemently. “It is a misconception to say that one problem (global warming) is bigger than another and forget about protecting salmon in our backyard to take care of the bigger issue. There are many alternatives for energy today that reduce the threat to fish while providing a global benefit,” says Patty Glick of the National Wildlife Federation in Portland. “We’re looking for alternative sources of energy to replace some of the dams that are devastating fish today.”

One of the newest renewables under study in Oregon is wave energy, which uses the power of ocean waves to turn turbines much the way hydroelectric systems do. Located offshore, they draw the same kind of opposition as hydropower plants do and for the same reason: potential damage to fish and other marine life.

While Oregon has not yet gotten a plant to the proposal stage, other states have succeeded and have found a wall of opposition from environmentalists.

One of the first proposed plants, planned by Verdant Power for the East River in New York, has been in the works since the 1980s. The argument against it: the fish population could be affected by the turbines. According to the New York Times, the company paid $1.5 million for underwater sonar systems to scan the underwater environment for fish in jeopardy, despite the fact that research had shown no significant impact on marine populations. The project, though fully built and ready to go, has yet to get the green light for full operation because of procedural snags and environmentalist concerns.

Northwest environmentalists likewise say that although they like the idea of wave or free flow energy in concept, they are leery about the location of such plants, especially in places where there is known orca activity. “The idea of wave energy is a bit newer than others and at this point pretty costly,” Glick says. “The concern is when places like Puget Sound are being discussed where you have orcas and wildlife in the ocean.” Kyle Freres admits to being somewhat nervous about his lumber company’s foray into renewable energy, a $20 million project that, when completed next year, will not only replace all use of natural gas at the company’s plant in Lyons but contribute non- fossilized fuel to the grid.

Companies like Freres Lumber have been constructing small biomass facilities for years, combining detritus from processing of timber with market-purchased “hog fuel” — small wood chips — to create biomass electricity for their mills.

His worry? That the plant’s opponents will put a stop to it before it’s fully operational — the same way they blocked timber sales for years.

He has reason to be concerned because while biomass, the burning of agricultural byproducts to produce steam power through the use of boilers, received enthusiastic praise previously from the environmental community for its limited emissions and non- petroleum source, enthusiasm for it now is decidedly tepid. Some environmental players say they’re willing to look at biomass but only under certain conditions and severe restrictions. Others say bluntly that biomass is not really clean energy at all.

It’s politics, Freres says, that prevents biomass from being used on a large scale in the Northwest. That’s because while other regions in the U.S. can use spent corn crops as fuel, Oregon is not suited to it. Instead, the logical fuel here would be salvage from the forests. Specifically, he says, slash from federal forestlands and salvage from burned timberlands. And while the government has been seeking ways to remove such biomass from federal forestlands, “It’s out of bounds now even though the forests are in real serious need of rehab,” Freres says. “That fuel is unavailable to projects like ours.”

As a result, expensive “hog fuel” must be bought. Forest biomass can also be fermented to produce ethanol, which can fuel cars. But Glick, of Portland’s National Wildlife Federation, says environmentalists are concerned that natural habitat in forestlands could be compromised by biomass facilities. “It sounds terrible to say we can’t give any kind of alternative energy the green light. We do think there is a lot of potential in cellulosic biofuel, but we don’t think there should be programs that destroy a natural habitat just to put in some biofuel facility. And if there is such a facility, there needs to be strong criteria that addresses what happens with habitat.” Doug Heiken of Eugene-based Wild Oregon, once known as Oregon Natural Resources Council, says biomass energy — even that which comes from the forest floor — could be viable. But he adds formidable caveats: Collection of small trees and understory vegetation can only occur in conjunction with or as part of habitat restoration and only in areas where there are existing logging roads. Large downed trees and snags must be left behind as habitat. And this, a significant caveat: Biomass removal cannot be so thorough that it prevents forest fire as a “natural part of our forests ... Biomass utilization will therefore likely be a short-term, transitional strategy that lasts until natural fire regimes can be re-established.”

While the conditions are substantial, Wild Oregon’s position is significantly friendlier than some who argue that biomass is “dirty” energy.

Considine has run into those. “There are those who are certain that if we use biomass, everything will go to hell,” he says. “People are scared and worried and fearful. But at the same time, bio-fuels (whether for energy or as substitutes for gasoline) will be huge.” As a substitute for gasoline, bio-fuels will give Oregon “an enormous opportunity to reinvest the $4 billion a year it spends on petroleum products,” Considine says. “All of that revenue right now leaves the state because there are no refineries here. We are an island. Being able to invest in alternative, renewable sources — say, canola oil — is a short term opportunity that can bring jobs into communities.”

Bjorn Fischer, spokesman for Climate Trust in Portland, says environmentalists shouldn’t be looking for perfection, but improvement. “The question is: How much dirty energy do you have to put in to get clean energy out? How intense is it? What is the number of BTUs produced? Yes, there is an emission issue, but it also replaces more emissions than it produces. What we’re looking for is net benefit.”

From that standpoint, nearly every kind of non-fossil fuel derived energy is, or should be, on the table in some form, he says.

Geothermal also faces potent opposition from environmental groups who point out that the hot water and steam produced underground often contains toxic elements, making groundwater pollution a potential danger. A secondary concern is that such plants might be ugly additions to the Northwest’s scenic draws, such as Newberry National Volcanic Monument in Central Oregon.

Despite early enthusiasm for harnessing geothermal energy, projects proposed in the West have lacked environmental support once they became formal proposals. A case in point: Calpine Corporation’s proposed 48-megawatt power plant near Medicine Lake in northern California, just south of the Oregon border.

The Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center threw everything they had at the project, citing “habitat fragmentation” caused by proposed new roads, miles of pipeline and transmission corridors, the potential for trees to be cut to make room for transmission lines, and the specter of a tall, man-made structure in a scenic recreation area. “Most critical,” the group’s website states, “…the potential to contaminate the source of the largest spring system in all of California. (It) sounds more like an oil operation. Surely this can't be considered ‘green.’”

But the Shasta group is not an oddity. Bill Marlett, executive director of The Oregon Natural Desert Association, is dead-set against the idea of using underground steam as an energy source in Oregon. He likened the idea to “trying to develop Yellowstone Park.” He says that because geothermal installations are most likely to be proposed for “places of environmental or social concern,” Oregon would be better off to look at other alternatives, such as wind and solar energy.

Wind and solar are considered the least controversial renewables, but they’re also considered infeasible for hour-by-hour energy needs, making them “intermittent” sources of energy because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. At one time, the only real drawback to wind power on a large scale was bird and bat mortality. The case in point was the Altamont Pass in California, where 5,400 turbines killed 400 birds in two years. More than half were raptors, such as eagles and hawks, many of which were protected species. Since then, wind supporters say, windmill design has been modified to minimize deaths.

Far more worrisome for some is the fact that for wind to be viable on a large scale, real estate is necessary. Lots of real estate that will then be populated with thousands of shiny metal windmills and the fact that the most likely place to find the kind of gusts needed to power Oregon is in the Columbia Gorge, where scenic and tourism concerns have derailed everything from houses in the viewshed to weddings on private land. While the Columbia Gorge Commission controls only a percentage of Gorge property, sentiment is strong in the Gorge about the area’s attractions.

What remains? Solar, where photovoltaic panels capture the power of the sun. Seemingly harmless. But look at it from a desert advocate’s point of view: “The most desired region is in the Southwest, but tens of thousands of square miles of land covered with solar cells would be an environmental disaster,” declares an environmental blog. Heiken doesn’t use the word “disaster” but agrees that the number of panels needed to capture sunlight would be staggering. “It would have to be gigantic, and there are some critters for whom it would be a disturbance of their migration corridors. Turtles, pronghorn antelope, for example.”

But there is a much bigger pill to swallow for many Northwest environmentalists than solar-caused habitat disruption: nuclear energy. While they were cheering at the demolition of Trojan Nuclear Power Plant, climate-change activists were on record backing nuclear energy as a viable renewable. For Fischer, of Climate Trust, the decision to back nuclear is an easy one: Nuclear emits no so-called greenhouse gases; therefore, he says, it should be considered as part of Oregon’s portfolio. Simple.

He questions the wisdom of environmentalists prejudiced against nuclear. “The question is: What do you want to accomplish? If you want something cost efficient, clean, with no greenhouse gas levels, you should not exclude any net benefit. It is abundant, affordable and used worldwide.” If anything, Fischer says, the U.S. should be encouraging high-population countries to use nuclear technology. “If it can pass the red-face test, it should be part of the solution,” he says.

Also part of the solution: green tags and assorted carbon offset programs that allow businesses and industry to “green” their “dirty” energy consumption by investing in renewables.

Initially, support for such incentive programs was nearly absolute. But recently, murmuring began among environmentalists who consider the tags a sell-out. Instead, they argue, industries should be forced to comply with strict caps on emissions. Period.

Writer Gene Cole, a contributor to Grist, an environmental magazine, put it this way in a post to the magazine last spring: “Guilt ridden, or just good hearted, we make a mistake by buying green tags. That leaves the industrial customers to go on buying cheap dirty power … Misguided environmental activists are leading the Grist community down the wrong road.”

Environmentalists are themselves puzzled by the divisions. Mostly anonymous bloggers say globalists have hijacked environmentalism and subjected it to sell-out compromise. Others say hard-core enviros are unrealistic and too quick to dismiss incremental change in their single-minded pursuit to find the one solution that will fix everything they deem to be broken.

Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace UK, has called for compromise. In an interview with the New York Times, he said that environmentalists “might have to sacrifice some of their ideals to accomplish renewable energy on any scale” because “a lot of new stuff (has) to be built and installed, some of it in places that are relatively untouched.”

Art Robinson is skeptical.

A former research director of the Linus Pauling Institute and founder of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine in southern Oregon, Robinson believes too many environmentalists have gone past simple environmental advocacy and into positions that are actually anti-humanity, believing that humans are the enemies of the earth and that technology, as the tool humanity uses to expand its influence over the globe, must be stopped. “They think technology is like giving an idiot a machine gun,” he says.

Robinson believes it’s why the most viable forms of energy have been dismissed by environmental groups while the least viable have come through relatively unscathed. “Let’s put it this way,” he says. “If solar energy could run industry, they would be against it.”

BrainstormNW - December 2006

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