Going Green Over Green

posted 2/3/10
Going Green over Green

Twenty five short years ago being green was easy. Clean air and water were relatively new ideas, with the acts being just over a decade old. Timber companies were still majorly munching old growth trees, developers were still slamming superstores down on wetlands in the name of jobs. Global Climate change was a puzzling set of computer printouts. A lot of everyday people were confused about what environmentalists were protesting; didn’t they know Vietnam was over?

The confusion over what an enviro is, is the only thing that hasn’t changed; if anything, being green is harder now than ever.

One change is that it’s now popular to be green. Twenty five years ago loggers were still wiping their asses with spotted owls; now SPI’s image is so green Mark Pawlicki’s job could be snatched at any moment by Julia "Butterfly" Hill.

Julia Butterfly, in the old days.

Gone are the days when being an "environmentalist" would get your butt kicked in a rural bar.

Oh, there are still plenty of people bitching about "enviros," but even they aren’t sure exactly who they mean, and there are so many fingers pointing at other finger pointers, and so many people claiming personally to be environmentalists, that the situation just isn’t real clear like it used to be, back when the only enviros anyone personally knew were over-educated, bone-head son-in-laws. You don’t have to belong to Earth First! to be an enviro today, you can belong to Trout Unlimited or Ducks Unlimited. The Sierra Club a few months back admitted it’s a good idea to cut trees, after all. People, please stay on your own sides!

SPI’s website: all green!

Another thing has changed about being an enviro. It used to mean showing up at dawn, standing on a road in a shivering rain with a dozen other people to stop logging trucks from worming into the forest primeval, or linking arms in front of a battalion of law enforcement freaks in armor with guns and batons to stop a nuclear pile from being built on an earthquake fault. Now, it means making a nice living by keeping other people from going to work. It means lawsuits and press releases. Real enviros have college degrees, they work at a desk, they read reports and study law. People who still take to the woods are seen as passe, or worse, lower drawer.

The Prospect has reported previously on the odd state of old school enviros who are now fighting with lawsuit funded enviros over the use of their own property. There are some in those communities, often old loggers whose careers ended with the end of big timber, who feel those early environmentalists are getting their just desserts, that what came around went around, but there’s more to it than that.

When, exactly, are we helping the environment, and when is helping one part of the environment hurting another part? When the targets were big and easy, like Maxxam/Pacific Lumber, or Hooker Chemical Company, it was clear when you were helping. Now, we know too much, our hairs are split too finely. Helping here hurts there. What does it mean, now, to be "green?"

If being an "environmentalist" means protecting the environment, shouldn’t that apply to the tens of thousands of bureaucrats, environmental health techs, and field agents who enforce the state and national environmental laws? What, really, does it mean to protect the environment? We recently reported that the Center for Biological Diversity, an enviro group, was suing Sierra Pacific Industries in seven counties to prevent clear cutting, which clear cutting is supposed to help sequester carbon dioxide, a green house gas. Who is more enviro there?

In that instance, it’s a no brainer: SPI clear cuts like some people shave, they’ve simply found a new way, carbon credits, to get paid for doing it. Regardless Schwarzenegger’s recent kudos to the company, there really doesn't seem to be a comprehensive carbon cycle to the plan.

Still, it isn’t always so easy. Consider the case of the Mojave desert.

The Mojave, is huge, touching on four states. Much of it gets less than 10 inches of rain per year, and during summer and fall is sunny, hot and flat. Winters can be cold but mostly dry. A lot of it is what most people would call "barren." What could be the harm is setting up some solar reflectors to create greenhouse gas free electricity? Enviros of every stripe are in favor of the idea, except for some.

Enter Wildlands Conservancy, a non-profit that protects wildlands in California, and a heavy hitter at that. Their website says:

The Wildlands Conservancy (TWC) has preserved more land in California with private funds than any other conservation organization. TWC owns the largest nonprofit preserve system in California which includes our 97,000 acre Wind Wolves Preserve and our 33,000 Sand to Snow Preserve System.

Wildlands conservancy isn’t against green power, it’s just against covering millions of acres or the Mojave with mirrors. It might not seem like it when you slide onto the semi-molten vinyl car seat in summer, but the sun is actually rather weak, by the standards of our power use. Cheap petroleum, coal, natural gas and the early, halcyon days of hydroelectric dams have given us a severe electricity habit. It takes a lot of sunshine to match the stored energy in those more damaging forms of electrical generation. The Mojave is assumed to be about 25,000 miles square, and the proposed plants, which would provide clean, carbon free electricity to tens of millions of homes at 15 cents a kilowatt, would take up only about 1500 square miles (Sierra County is just under a thousand square miles).

There are organizations which are against solar power in wildlands at all: one is HEREThe logic of the group is simple and compelling: cities are where people use power, the sun shines on cities, let them put their solar panels on the roof.

There is only one thing standing against this logic: the electrical generation industry, who does not want to see electrical power decentralized. The industry gurus are well versed in the science of "small is inefficient". They point out that large solar facilities are more efficient, they can store heat in liquid salt for use at night. They are easier to regulate, and indeed help write the regulations. You just can’t get more user friendly than your big power company (NVEnergy, for example, intends to get big into solar).

Then, the anti wildlands solar groups say, generate it centrally in the city. Buy the roof tops. Learn to live with less electricity. Whatever the problem is, it lies in the cities, not the wildlands.

The Mojave (a tiny little portion of it) from the Wildlands Conservancy site.

Toward protecting at least the Mojave, TWC has sponsored the Mojave Desert Trails National Monument, which would comprise nearly a million acres. The land was purchased, mostly from the railroads, with government and private dollars, and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which is what they call the Forest Service when there aren’t many trees (an over simplification, but a useful one). The BLM, like the Forest Service, prohibits unauthorized inhabitance of the public lands, but like the Forest Service, is fine with corporations doing what they like as long as they pay money. The BLM is fine with 1.5 Sierra Counties being covered in mirrors, plumbing, and power lines.

Being heavy hitters, TWC has been able to enlist some congressfolk. Feinstein and Boxer have both shown support for the plan, which would prevent the BLM from issuing those permits.

All this angered the "Green Governator" Arnold Schwarzenegger, who complained to Yale graduates in 2008:

"They say that we want renewable energy but we don't want you to put it anywhere, we don't want you to use it… I don't know whether this is ironic or absurd. But, I mean, if we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it."


Hell would be a poor location for solar, but would work well for geothermal, and being largely under Republican control, the environmental hurdles there are probably non-existent. But, we digress.

This same green-green controversy exists in Sierra County, where biomass is as hope for the future of the county, and for a renewable source of relatively green energy. The "relatively green" is the problem.

Some groups, such as Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project declares:

Our goal is to ensure ecological management of our National Forests by ending the federal timber sales program and eliminating its system of perverse economic and political incentives that undermine science and threaten native wildlife and forest ecosystems.

(From the website HERE). The project’s executive director is also its main source of scientific literature, which purports to prove that the only thing we can do is let the forests burn, and hope that in a few hundred years everything will be back in order again.

The JMP, which uses Mr. Muir’s name completely without his posthumous permission (he died in 1914; we don’t know for certain what he would think of EII/JMP), is bad news for those who live in the woods. We don’t have a few hundred years to wait for reforestation. We’d like to remove some of the biomass before it burns us to death.

We also feel pretty green regardless the occasional "enviro" lawsuit. Biomass, like huge solar farms, is a compromise position. It trades things off against each other to, hopefully, benefit the environment and people. We understand that, currently, biomass has a large carbon footprint. It burns diesel to bring the biomass to market. When burned improperly, it produces smokestack gases like nitrogen.

Still, when compared to the emissions of a single wildfire, biofuel is a great deal. For private landowners, biomass removal does provide the opportunity for properly managed carbon sequestering.

The John Muir Project doesn’t support that view, though the Sierra Forest Legacy has been working toward a biomass solution. Is JMP more "green" than SFL?

Which leaves us to wonder, if removing hazard fuels to prevent wildfire and then converting the carbon to electricity isn’t green, what is? And if it is green, what is the John Muir Project?

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