Gaining the social license to build clean energy infrastructure
The Biden administration is racing to do two essential things at once: halve the country’s planet-warming emissions by 2030 and protect the nation’s biological diversity by conserving 30 percent of its land over the same period. Given the staggering amount of new infrastructure that will be needed to transition our economy to a clean energy future, it may appear to some that these two goals conflict with one another. After all, infrastructure development generally is viewed as the opposite of conservation. I disagree. Not only do I believe these goals are compatible, I believe they are inseparable. We will only get the new energy infrastructure we need if we commit to an equal or greater amount of land conservation.
To reach these ambitious climate goals, the United States must transition the production of power as well as build thousands of miles of upgraded or new transmission lines to bring the power to the grid. The National Academies of Science estimates that the country would need to install more than 1 million miles of new transmission lines in a 30-year timeframe, while the Inflation Reduction Act — the sweeping climate, energy and health care law passed last year that relies heavily on carbon capture and storage— will require an estimated 65,000 miles of new pipelines.
At the same time, President Biden is all in on the ambitious goal of protecting 30 percent of the nation’s land by 2030. There is real urgency around this effort as fish, wildlife and plant species are declining faster today than at any time in human history. In the United States, 40 percent of all animals and 34 percent of all plants are at risk of extinction, while 41 percent of ecosystems are facing collapse. Much of this is due to habitat loss. In fact, the American Bird Conservancy identified this as one of the primary factors causing the loss of nearly 3 billion birds across North America over the last 50 years.
The key to solving for both new infrastructure and land conservation is scale. Getting to scale, however, can be challenging. The existing collection of federal, state and local siting and permitting regulations is a major obstacle to rapidly transitioning to a low carbon energy system, as is opposition from some groups to almost all new infrastructure, and persistent NIMBYism from individuals (those who cry “not in my backyard”).
The Inflation Reduction Act provides sufficient financial incentives to build the clean energy infrastructure we need by 2030. But putting new steel in the ground will require a social license, which will be easier to obtain if it is inextricably linked to protecting 30 percent of the nation’s land.
Conservation easements can play a major role in meeting this challenge, as they are attractive to many private landowners. Since they were first introduced more than 50 years ago, tens of thousands of properties important to people and wildlife, including millions of acres of working forests, farms and ranches, have been conserved using this flexible and land-owner friendly tool. Many of these perpetual conservation easements, established by mutual agreement between the private landowner and a private land trust or government agency, limit certain types of development to achieve a particular conservation objective such as migration corridors for wildlife, critical habitat preservation, or endangered species restoration.
So, how can we move forward? I suggest three courses of action:
First, we need to face up to the kinds of trade-offs that will be needed if we are serious about addressing climate change. If climate change is an urgent priority, then we cannot with any integrity oppose almost every project aimed at addressing it. The scale of the investments needed means there will be unavoidable impacts to natural, cultural and historic resources. But we are going to have to learn how to say “yes.”
Second, we need meaningful permit reform so that critical infrastructure and mining projects can get built. We simply cannot accept the current reality where new projects take more than a decade to get permitted. For example, “a review of over 30 transmission projects initiated after the 2005 Energy Policy Act found that new transmission takes an average of over 10 years to complete,” according to Harvard’s Belfer Center. And some projects can take closer to 20 years.
Third, we need clearer rules around voluntary and compensatory mitigation for unavoidable impacts from new infrastructure. The challenges that infrastructure and mining project developers face to satisfy overlapping and sometimes inconsistent federal and state requirements to address impacts on protected resources from development projects are enormous. We need a transparent process for assessing the impacts of a proposed infrastructure project that is grounded in science and applied consistently across development projects, and we need an established methodology to determine appropriate mitigation measures.
Halving the country’s planet-warming emissions and protecting the nation’s biological diversity by conserving 30 percent of its land by 2030 are solvable problems. To succeed, we must focus on results, remain clear-eyed about trade-offs and work to clarify and streamline regulatory processes. Linking clean energy infrastructure to landscape-scale conservation could be the key that unlocks our future.
Larry Selzer is the chief executive officer at The Conservation Fund, which has protected over 8.5 million acres of land across the United States. The Conservation Fund’s Working Forest Fund is the first green bonds of their kind dedicated to forest conservation in the U.S., which aims to protect 5 million acres of forests.
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