Balancing Act: Energy Development and Wild Land Conservation

The following blog post is written by Negah Mouzoon, a Public Policy intern with The Wilderness Society in Washington DC. She works on Land and Water Conservation and Renewable Energy issues and can soon be found at Public Citizen, a non-profit group that works to ensure that all citizens are represented in the halls of power.

Anyone who’s ever practiced a yoga sun salutation knows it’s all about balance, balancing the ever-growing tight pull in your hamstrings while managing your breathing consistency. Oddly enough, development of renewable energy on public lands can take a few pointers from the Sun Salutation. America is experiencing tension in its national renewable energy sector. The urgency to expand sustainable energy production in the face of climate disruption has set off an explosion of interest in developing wind and solar projects on public lands. If the sun salutation can shed any light on doing clean energy projects right on public lands, it would be to balance that development with land conservation.

The public is clamoring for more renewable energy, and state policies requiring certain portions of electricity to come from renewable sources are in place in 36 states. Some of this electricity will come from the rich wind and solar energy resources found on our public lands. The Bureau of Land Management is working to identify the best zones for solar development that safeguard wild lands and critical wildlife habitat, and many public meetings have been scheduled in Washington, DC and across six western states to discuss their draft plan. As America rides this renewable energy boom, proper oversight must be instituted to ensure our wild lands stay safe and intact.

It begins with agreeing on which areas of public land are suitable for renewable energy projects and, just as importantly, which are not. Like any commercial energy development, wind and solar projects can adversely impact nearby ecosystems and wildlife, many national parks, roadless backcountry lands and refuges will remain off limits. Nevertheless, there are many already-disturbed places identified by the EPA and NREL that may be suitable for development, including 11,300 contaminated sites, known as “Brownfields.” Generally, these sites are former locations of industrial facilities, contaminated military bases or landfills that still harbor chemicals hazardous to local communities.  While part of the EPA’s “Re-Powering America’s Land” program includes cleaning up these polluted sites for renewable energy use, still many proposed projects are in need of a balancing measure to counteract the foreseeable invasive impacts on surrounding landscapes.

This is where the Clean Energy, Community Investment, and Wildlife Conservation Act introduced last Congress by Senators Reid and Tester, and Congressman Heller would tip the scale. By investing a significant share of revenues generated by commercial wind and solar projects in land conservation, the bill balances onsite mitigation and restoration—the yin and yang of sustainable clean, renewable energy development. While onsite mitigation means to lessen the extent of development impacts, while conserving new and pristine landscapes, reclamation appropriately addresses the already existing damages’ effects on fish, wildlife and water resources.

Now, more than ever, is it important to maintain the Zen-like balance of development and conservation. Proper oversight and investment must be made to ensure development meets our growing need for renewable energy, as well as preserves our national wild heritage. Many would say fulfilling the demands of renewable energy development, while counterbalancing its effects with land conservation, is much like the art of yoga—balancing complementary opposites.