California's power crisis is shedding light on an issue overdue for debate: the high costs of modern environmentalism. As they ponder whopping utility bills-and worry about brown-outs-Californians are learning that aggressive environmentalism comes with trade-offs.
For instance, it's thanks in large part to pressure from environmentalists that no new power plant has been constructed in California over the past decade.
And some of those power sources that are available are less effective, delivering less electricity than they are capable of providing, because of dubious environmental initiatives.
The federal Endangered Species Act is a prime example. In 1995, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt claimed that the Endangered Species Act costs each American an average of only 16 cents per year. But he left out the costs that show up on our utility bills. The Endangered Species Act has had a serious impact on the supply of electricity in the West.
Activists frequently invoke this and related laws to force changes in power-plant policies. Earlier this year, eight environmental groups threatened to sue Washington state's largest investor-owned utility if its hydroelectric dam is operated in a way that harms fish protected under the Endangered Species Act. Last June several activist groups sued the federal government over management of dams on the Colorado River, including Hoover Dam, a major source of power for Southern California.
Such lawsuits have already had a dramatic effect on power production. Environmental conservation and protection have transformed Glen Canyon Dam, which holds back Lake Powell, from a 1,300 megawatt resource to a 900 megawatt resource, a loss of more than 30 percent of its generating capacity. Production fell to 330 megawatts this past summer, according to
Leslie James, executive director of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association, an organization representing hundreds of power providers in the Colorado River Basin. "You take that amount of capacity out of the western wholesale market and it's going to have a serious impact on prices," he said.
In recent years the main goal of the operating plan for Folsom Dam, which generates about 10 percent of the Sacramento area's power, has been satisfying environmental concerns and regulations-particularly protection of winter-run Chinook Salmon. Water has been released from the dam when fish needed it most, rather than when the demand for hydroelectric power has been the greatest.
Such a focus on non-human needs has become typical of dam management throughout the West.
In California, air quality regulations have also done their part to prevent power plants from generating the electricity we need. The reason there has been a push to relax some regulations in recent weeks is because when they're enforced inflexibly, clean-air rules limit plants' operating time. When generating facilities reach their limit each day, they have been shut down for the day-even though society's need for power goes on.
Without question, environmental protection is a vital goal. But so is supplying warmth and light-and jobs and incomes. Under current bureaucratic policies implementing the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and other federal and state mandates, everyday pocketbook and social needs are not given weight when measured against environmental protection.
Americans have accepted this skewed approach partly because they haven't been squarely presented with the costs-until now. Power shortages just might end the shortage of informed discussion of the environment and the economy. While pursuing environmental priorities, we must embrace policies that strike a rational balance-and don't leave us in the dark.
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