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Thursday, March 25,2010

How to quit worrying and save the desert tortoise

By Paul Danish

A Gallup Poll taken a couple weeks ago found that Americans’ worries about environmental issues have dropped to a 20-year low, which the pollsters mostly attribute to economic concerns. I think there’s more to it than that, but first the poll findings.

The poll found that for each of eight environmental issues, the number of Americans who worry “a great deal” about them has dropped dramatically compared to a year ago. For six of the eight issues, the drop hit record lows.

In the case of three of the issues — waterways pollution, air pollution, and toxic waste contamination — the drops were 25 percentage points or more compared with 1989.

The poll also found that of the eight issues, Americans worried least about global warming. (They worried most about drinking water pollution.) The number of Americans who worried “a great deal” about global warming has dropped to 28 percent from 41 percent in 2007.

In a separate poll, the Gallup organization found a record number of Americans, 53 percent, say economic growth takes precedence, even if it hurts the environment, according to Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief.

“The economy is swamping everything,” he told USA Today.

Well, there’s more going on here than pocketbook issues.

For one thing, the poll likely contains some good news disguised as bad.

Chances are Americans are a lot less worried about water, air and toxic waste pollution than they were in 1989 because the country’s air and water are a lot cleaner than they were 20 years ago, and thousands of toxic waste sites have been cleaned up.

They may have concluded that environmentalists are incapable of distinguishing between minor impacts and existential threats and of setting priorities.

That’s the good news. But then there’s this from the New York Times.

According to green energy writer Todd Woody, the staff of the California Energy Commission last week recommended approval for the state’s first new big solar power plant in nearly two decades — after a two-and-a-half-year environmental review.

Two-and-a-half-freaking-years to approve one lousy solar power plant to be built on desert land. And the process still isn’t complete.

The plant in question is to be built at Ivanpah, Calif., by BrightSource Energy, the corporate successor of the company that built almost all of California’s existing solar plants in the 1980s. It is designed to produce up to 392 megawatts of energy by using arrays of mirrors to concentrate sunlight on a central tower, where it will produce steam that will be used to drive a turbine.

The plant will produce no carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, NOX or mercury emissions. And it will use relatively little water, because, unlike some solar thermal power plants, it will recycle its cooling water. The nearby golf courses will use more.

So why the two-and-onehalf-year approval process? Well, it turns out environmentalists were trying to block the project. According to Woody, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity say the plant would harm rare plants and animals like the desert tortoise — all the while claiming to be all for solar energy.

Surveys have found 25 desert tortoises on the site.

Other environmentalists claimed that the thousands of acres of mirror fields and 459-foot tower would mar the visual beauty of the desert.

The critics wanted BrightSource to move the plant to a site with more disturbed land. BrightSource demurred, because the current site is near existing high voltage transmission lines. (California enviros have been fighting the construction of new transmission lines, as well; their main complaints are habitat disturbance and aesthetics.)

So in order to get an approval BrightSource agreed to downsize the plant by 450 acres to accommodate the tortoises and the plants, reducing its generating capacity from 440 megawatts to 392 megawatts — and prompting the environmental groups to complain that it hadn’t done enough.

The California Energy Commission’s staffers disagreed, saying the mitigation measures were sufficient as far as the critters and shrubs were concerned. As for the visual impacts, they said they couldn’t be reduced, but in view of “overriding considerations” (like saving the planet) the plant should be built anyway.

And it took two-and-a-half years to arrive at that point.

And what has been going on during that two-and-a-half years?

Well, the world’s environmentalists have been telling us morning, noon and night that global warming poses a clear and present danger to both the planet and civilization as we know it — and that there’s not a second to lose in reducing our carbon footprint. And they’ve been telling the American people that they are stupid for not embracing their warnings with more urgency.

Meanwhile, during the same twoand-a-half years, the United States has burned two-and-a-half billion tons of coal, producing about seven billion tons of carbon dioxide.

What do you suppose ordinary Americans make of all this? And make no mistake, the American people, having been told they are stupid, are paying attention.

Well, they probably concluded there isn’t an environmental problem here that couldn’t have been solved in 60 days had there been any real interest in solving it. They are probably wondering (as am I) why the tortoises weren’t moved or put in a captive breeding program or offered up for adoption under an existing federal program. They probably also are wondering if the shade, water and fenced sanctuary of a solar plant might be attractive to them — kind of like marine life is attracted to offshore oil platforms.

They may also have concluded that environmentalists are totally incapable of distinguishing between minor impacts and existential threats and setting priorities.

And when the Gallup Poll comes calling, they say: If the Sierra Club doesn’t have any real sense of urgency about global warming, why should we?

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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This column is so disorganized and poorly researched that it’s difficult to make out what you’re trying to accomplish.

So here’s my best guess: You aim to expose efforts by three conservation groups to protect an imperiled animals and its habitat from being destroyed by ONE power-plant in California as the reason why fewer Americans chose global warming as a top political concern.


Really?!? But wait, you’ve got facts and stats on your side, right? Nope. The polling experts explicitly tell you that the economy is at the forefront of the public consciousness (which I give you credit for reporting it, even as it undermines the whole piece).


However, the real shame is that your overarching message, which is to get renewable energy moving so that we can slow down global warming, is cheapened by all the other problems with your column.


With a little research, you could have written a piece explaining how California could overcome siting problems by looking at what other sunny states, such as Arizona, are doing to promote renewable energy. Check out the Arizona Restoration Design Energy Project. It’s a good example of how to balance development with conservation. The plan prioritizes projects sited on old landfills, abandoned mines or industrial waste sites, minimizing the conflicts you described above.


It’s just getting off the ground and could use some support. Seems like a better way to get renewable energy up and running than criticizing enviros for just doing their jobs.