Photo: USFWS/Joshua Winchell
In this age of boundless partisanship, something remarkable happened this summer.
A smart, forward-thinking piece of legislation addressing climate change was introduced that is sponsored by two Arizona congressmen from opposite ends of the political spectrum: Republican Paul Gosar, who rode the Tea Party wave into Congress in 2010, and Democrat Raul Grijalva, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Nearly 40 lawmakers joined them in uniting around the idea that public lands can and should play an important role in America’s cleaner energy future—while providing for local communities and protecting fish and wildlife.
Both environmentalists and many energy companies agree that that we need to invest more in renewable energy, such as wind and solar, to help address the causes and the effects of a changing climate, including prolonged drought, unnaturally intense wildfires, and extreme floods. At the same time, sportsmen and women who hunt and fish on public lands recognize the need to protect important rivers and landscapes as renewable energy development happens, and the need to invest in restoration so these areas can weather the effects of development and climate change.
The Public Land Renewable Energy Act would address both of these issues in a balanced way by creating a new system for efficient, responsible renewable energy development on public lands. By identifying priority areas for wind, solar and geothermal projects, this bill encourages smart siting and efficient permitting in places with high potential for energy and low impact on wildlife and habitat. Royalty revenues would be invested in local communities and in fish and wildlife resources.
Fossil fuels remain the dominant energy source in America. Next year, coal and natural gas will comprise about 60 percent of the energy generated in the nation; and their per-acre production of energy dwarfs that of renewable energy.
But times are changing. Renewable energy plays an increasingly important role in the American energy landscape. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewable energy is the fastest growing sector of the energy market. Electricity generation from renewable sources will comprise about 13 percent of the total energy production in the nation by 2020.
Utility-scale wind and solar projects are a growing presence on our public lands. While the number of wind and solar projects on public lands hardly compares with traditional oil and gas development, renewable technologies are here, and their presence on the western landscape continues to grow.
Concerns about climate change have compelled states such as California, Washington and New Mexico to pass laws requiring production of 100 percent of their future energy from renewable sources. More states are contemplating similar legislation. Given that public lands comprise nearly, or more than, half of the land in these three states, they are sure to play an important role in how these and other states meet their renewable energy goals—and they should.
I say that despite the fact that renewable energy does not come without environmental damage. Utility-scale solar and wind chew up a lot of land, and displace habitat for fish and wildlife. Some of the best fishing and hunting is on our public lands, making these places key to an outdoor recreation economic engine that generates $887 billion annually.
We already know what can go wrong when we venture into energy development on public lands without understanding the consequences. The 1872 Mining Law held out the promise of gold and silver on public lands as an enticement to open the western territories to settlement. Riches were made. Inventions were discovered. The West was settled.
What Congress did not, and likely could not, foresee, was the toxic legacy of the Gold Rush— a full 40 percent of our western headwater streams—those found highest in the mountains—polluted by abandoned mines unleashing zinc, cadmium, lead, arsenic and other toxins into the landscape.
We’re smarter now. The Public Lands Renewable Energy Act employs a “look before you leap” perspective. It expedites permitting for renewable energy, but it also creates a fund for fish and wildlife habitat and water restoration and mitigation. In addition, it shares revenues with the counties and states of origin to offset the loss of the public lands for other multiple uses, and in recognition of the fact that these projects require a long-term investment, and a lot of patience, by adjacent local communities.
Theodore Roosevelt once described conservation as the application of common sense to common problems for the common good. This proposal undoubtedly fits that description. It is time to see this bill across the finish line.
Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited.