On Tuesday, District Judge Roger Titus issued an injunction against the construction of the Beech Ridge Energy wind project – 122 wind turbines along 23 miles of Appalachian ridgelines – unless the project can obtain an incidental take permit, or ITP, under the Endangered Species Act. Judge Titus concluded, after a four-day trial, that operation of the turbines would cause a “take” of the endangered Indiana Bat.
I’m not going to get into the details of the decision, though it certainly does not seem crazy on its face. I am going to go on a rant that there has to be a better way.
Those of us who are old enough to have gotten interested in policy in the 1970s will recall TANSTAAFL – there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Appalachian ridgeline turbines kill Indiana Bats. Offshore wind turbines kill sea birds or spoil pristine views. Remember when everyone thought that hydroelectric power was the “clean” energy? Dams kill fish and alter ecosystems. Nuclear power creates long-lasting wastes. I probably don’t need to explain the costs of coal. TANSTAAFL.
Today, people look to solar, and geothermal, and tidal power. I don’t know about you, but while I’m open to persuasion, my default assumption is that geothermal and tidal power could bring changes to complex systems that we really don’t begin to understand. Maybe solar has no environmental costs, but I wouldn’t bet on it. TANSTAAFL.
In a world where everything has costs, we need to find a way to balance those costs to achieve societal objectives. Maybe the harm to the Indiana Bat would be so great that the Beech Ridge Energy project is not worth it. Maybe not. Either way, does anyone think that the ESA provides a mechanism to make that judgment? Of course not; it’s not designed to do so. It’s designed to protect the bats.
We really need an overarching statute that allows the government to assess the unavoidable trade-offs, because there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and decide which projects should move forward. Lest my environmentalist friends think that I want to be able to give developers a blank check, I can only say, no, no, no. I’m agnostic on the outcomes, but I’m quite certain that the approach I advocate would only make thorough (which is not to say slow) review under NEPA and related statutes more important. Decision-makers can’t balance the costs and benefits of different projects unless they have a thorough understanding of what those costs and benefits are.
Solar power does have a significant environmental impact that few ever talk about. The mining of rare earth elements (Indium, Neodymium, Gallium, and Hafnium) necessary for their manufacture can devastate pristine wilderness and release otherwise stable deposits of toxic minerals into our water ways.