About the Benjamins $$$$$$

I received a disturbing message last week from a colleague who works closely with the renewable energy industry. He wrote “the simple fact of the matter is that renewable energy development is about to go into the tank -- because of siting constraints, advances made by the natural gas crowd, and the loss of (primarily federal) incentives.”

I translate this as: renewable energy development is hamstrung with current time and financial constraints, natural gas has better economics, and the economic playing field, already tilted in favor of the fossil fuel industry, is getting worse not better. This is depressing. We need to rapidly develop renewable energy sources if we are to both meet the country’s energy needs (which will always be the highest priority) and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.  But, as in most aspects of American life these days, it is the mighty dollar that trumps all other concerns.

And the question I ponder is “what can a small western regional public interest group do in the face of such a monstrous problem?” The answer for me is, as it always has been, “we do what we can, as smartly and strategically as possible.”

So here is what we are doing. First, we are attacking GHG emissions all across the West at their sources, primarily coal-burning power plants and natural gas drilling operations. Our tool is litigation utilizing our nation’s bedrock environmental laws.  For too long the fossil fuel industry, particularly coal, has gotten away with flaunting laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. 

Our latest example is the filing of a Notice of Intent to Sue the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for failing to ensure that mining operations prevent degredation of water quality at the Rosebud Mine - a massive 25,000 acre coal mine in Eastern Montana, which supplies coal to Colstrip Power Plant, the second largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi. Watch a tv news video covering the issue. 

Now, while this lawsuit is on its face about protecting water quality for the residents of eastern Montana, it is also about climate change. Let me explain.

For too long the coal industry has not had to be accountable for the true costs of its operations. By failing to comply with environmental laws, choosing instead to use our public lands, water and air as its private garbage dump, the industry has kept its operating costs artificially low. This makes it even more difficult for the renewable energy developers to be cost competitive. So, just as we’ve done in seeking to require methane gas capture technology on wells in the oil and gas fields of the West, and

in seeking to limit the improper (and cheap) disposal of toxic coal ash from coal-fired power plants in Nevada and New Mexico, our lawsuit to require compliance with water quality standards at the Rosebud mine has a goal of making the cost of coal fired energy more realistic.

The flip-side of the coin is to keep the costs of renewable energy low. One important way to do this is to try and reconcile the values that often conflict when developing industrial scale projects, whether it is a renewable power plant or new transmission lines. These massive projects can get mired in years of litigation. At WELC, we are trying to find a better, less expensive path; but one that still protects the environmental values that we have been dedicated to protecting since our inception.

One such effort is the MSTI Review Project, a unique partnership formed by WELC, includes: Madison County, MT; Jefferson County, MT; Headwaters Economics; Sonoran Institute; Craighead Institute and Future West. The Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI) is a 500kv electric transmission line designed to transmit electricity from renewable energy producers in eastern Montana, and would run from Townsend, Montana to Twin Falls, Idaho.  

The MSTI Review Project is an independent review designed to better evaluate possible impacts of the transmission line and to protect the natural environment, rural lifestyles and private lands along the MSTI line.

We are utilizing a scientific modeling process to identify a variety of possible corridors for the MSTI line that take into account important values such as wildlife habitat, private property, hunting, fishing, agriculture, view shed, building density, and many others, and then determining how best these values may be protected in selecting a route for the transmission line.

Will this project we be successful in facilitating renewable energy development in a more rapid, less expensive manner than would be typical?  Time will tell. But we are trying, and in doing so we are utilizing other tools in our box of resources to get the job done.  And we are keeping our eye on the bottom line driving our energy policy – the Benjamins.


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Greg's advocacy includes both litigation and non-litigation-based conservation work building on his more than 20 years of experience as an environmental lawyer prosecuting cases to protect forests and endangered species in the Pacific Northwest. From 2002 to 2012, he served as WELC's Executive Director. Greg also taught the Environmental Law Clinic and Hazardous Waste Law at the Univ. of Oregon School of Law for nine years before relocating to Seattle, Washington in 2011. He formerly served as the environmental community representative of the Washington State Forest Practices Appeals Board at the request of Governors Michael Edward Lowery and Gary Locke. Greg graduated from the Univ. of Colorado School of Law. He clerked for the Hon. Sherman G. Finesilver, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. You can reach Greg directly at 206-260-1166.

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This blog explores inside information from WELC's smart, dedicated attorneys, scientists and policy experts who have committed their lives to defending the American West. Our experts take their unique knowledge, mix it with long hours of reflection in the saddle of a bicycle, hiking a long & winding trail, paddling a river, or skiing the mountains and share with you their insights and perspectives. We hope you enjoy the results!