The brawl over the Keystone XL pipeline — which would have transported oil from the tar sands in Alberta down to the Gulf Coast — was, in part, a battle over climate change. Opponents of the project pointed out that fully exploiting Canada’s carbon-intensive tar sands for oil would make it impossible for humanity to keep global warming under control.
It’s worth noting that some of the environmental movement’s biggest successes in the last few years have come from playing defense. The Sierra Club and other green groups have managed to block or legally bog down some 150 coal-fired plants from being built in the United States. From a climate perspective, that’s a bigger deal than anything Congress has done.
But similar types of local opposition can spin right around and block cleaner forms of energy that many environmentalists support. Residents in Cape Cod have tangled up an offshore wind project for years, partly because it would obstruct scenic beach views. Solar farms in the Mojave Desert, backed by the big green groups, have met with fierce opposition from local environmentalists who worry that the plants could trample on fragile ecosystems. These aren’t isolated incidents: Back in March, a Chamber of Commerce report found that 47 percent of some 351 energy projects thwarted in recent years have been renewable projects.
Local concerns are often quite valid. Nebraska activists really did have compelling reasons to think that a pipeline leak could threaten a major source of drinking and irrigation water for the region. Opponents of natural-gas “fracking” in the Northeast make a strong case that the industry is rushing to drill without fully understanding the safety risks. When I wrote this piece on how electricity-transmission projects were being held up across the United States, I got a lot of smart pushback over the fact that power providers were often barreling ahead with lines that whose clean-energy benefits were questionable. NIMBYism isn’t always wrong.
But excessive opposition to local energy projects would run the risk of simply reinforcing the status quo. “Fighting out these big questions about where the United States is headed vis-à-vis our national energy policy and climate change on a project-by-project basis is a terrible and uncoordinated way to proceed,” write Sarah Ladislaw and David Pumphrey of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in a brief on Keystone XL. And yet, the authors note, given that we’re living in a world where our two political parties can’t agree on much, “it appears to be the path we’re on.”
Over at Time, Bryan Walsh lauds the Keystone XL protesters — led by folks like Bill McKibben — for notching a truly impressive victory. But if the environmental movement really wants to transform the energy economy, Walsh adds, it’s not enough to block fossil-fuel projects. Greens will have to fight just as fiercely for things, too. “I’ve rarely seen the sheer energy towards technocratic policies like cap-and-trade or renewable energy mandates,” he writes, “that I’ve seen when visiting Americans who are vehemently opposed to hydrofracking, for example.”
One final thing to add here is that if we’re living in a world where big energy infrastructure projects have become more contentious — or even impossible — then that could favor policies that give communities more control over local energy production. Germany and Denmark, for example, have transformed their energy systems with “feed-in tariffs,” polices that give homeowners, farmers and businesses incentives to install and profit from small solar or wind projects. (I’ve written a primer on feed-in tariffs here .) On its own, that’s hardly a solution for America’s energy woes, but it’s the type of thing we may end up seeing more of.