Correction to This Article
The article referred to Ned Farquhar as the head of the Bureau of Land Management. Farquhar is deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, in which capacity he oversees the BLM, as well as the Minerals Management Service and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Renewable Energy's Environmental Paradox

A proposed power line that would transmit solar and wind energy from New Mexico to Arizona would run next to wildlife habitats including the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, home to sandhill cranes.
A proposed power line that would transmit solar and wind energy from New Mexico to Arizona would run next to wildlife habitats including the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, home to sandhill cranes. (By Sandy Seth -- Friends Of The Bosque Del Apache Via Associated Press)
By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 16, 2009

The SunZia transmission line that would link sun and wind power from central New Mexico with cities in Arizona is just the sort of energy project an environmentalist could love -- or hate. And it is just the sort of line the Interior Department has been tasked with promoting -- or guarding against.

If built, the 460-mile line would carry about 3,000 megawatts of power, enough to avoid the need for a handful of coal-fired plants and to help utilities meet mandated targets for use of renewable fuel. "We have to connect the sun of the deserts and the winds of the plains to places where people live," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said recently.

But the line would also cross grasslands, skirt two national wildlife refuges and traverse the Rio Grande, all habitat areas rich in wildlife. The graceful sandhill crane, for example, makes its winter home in the wetlands of New Mexico's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, right next to the path of the proposed power line. And much of the area falls under the protection of the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Renewable-energy development, which the Obama administration has made a priority, is posing conflicts between economic interests and environmental concerns, not entirely unlike the way offshore oil and gas development pits economics against environment. But because of concerns about climate, many environmentalists and government agencies could find themselves straddling both sides, especially in Western states where the federal government is a major landowner.

"Everybody in New Mexico loves the sandhill cranes," said Ned Farquhar, a former aide to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D). "We also love our renewable energy. So we have to figure this out."

Farquhar made that comment a month ago when he was working for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Since then, he has been appointed head of the BLM -- in charge of figuring it out.

As the push for renewable-energy development intensifies across the United States, scientists and activists have begun to voice concern that policymakers have underestimated the environmental impact of projects that are otherwise "green."

"There is no free lunch when it comes to meeting our energy needs," said Johanna Wald, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She added, however, that the renewables boom "offers a chance to do it right."

"We want to do it differently compared to how we did oil and gas development," she said.

There is no question that permit applications for renewable-energy projects are on the rise, especially on federal land in the West. According to Ray Brady, leader of the BLM's energy policy team, the bureau has received 199 applications for solar projects encompassing 1.7 million acres of land, though only two of them have undergone environmental assessments.

The agency has already authorized 206 wind projects -- 28 of them to generate power, the rest primarily to test a region's wind-generation capacity -- and at least 200 more are awaiting approval.

The fact that eight Western states have established "renewable portfolio standards" has accelerated the push for new projects, Brady said, because those policies are forcing utilities to find additional renewable sources of electricity.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company