Environmental laws can be a barrier to building green energy infrastructure: NPR

Green energy, such as wind or solar, is one of the solutions to combat climate change. But sometimes it’s environmental laws that get in the way of building the infrastructure needed to produce it.


Renewable energies are a key tool in the fight against climate change. But the construction of infrastructure to produce, for example, wind or solar energy can sometimes come up against legal obstacles, such as laws aimed at protecting the environment. Darian Woods and Adrian Ma of our daily economics podcast The Indicator explain.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: So, Adrian, meet the Indiana bat.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: Is it a bat?

WOODS: It’s this cute little bat found in the Midwest. It’s brown. It is found in caves.

MA: I didn’t know bats could tweet. It’s lovely.

WOODS: (Laughs) And look, it’s an endangered species. It’s in decline. And the reason I bring it up is because in 2006 there was this wind farm project in Ohio – 70 wind turbines – this big project. Local neighbors didn’t like the idea of ​​these towering wind turbines being so close to their land, and they sued the wind turbine company for all sorts of things, but one particular complaint remained. They said the turbines could hurt bats. About five of these bats could die each year after hitting wind turbines. And after years of legal battles in courtrooms across the country, the wind farm company has finally given up. The project was abandoned in 2019. And that’s great for Indiana’s bats, but not so good for wildlife in other parts of the world threatened by climate change, not to mention the economic impacts of more floods and droughts.

JB RUHL: There is a long list of challenges for wind and solar power plants.

WOODS: JB Ruhl is a professor of law at Vanderbilt University. JB says we’ve created all kinds of laws and regulations that allow people to challenge big projects like train stations, solar farms and wind farms, and that includes environmental laws.

MA: And it’s great to get local feedback and help preserve communities, local landscapes, endangered species. But given the urgency of climate change, JB says it’s a problem and there had to be a better way.

WOODS: So he teamed up with another law professor, James Salzman, and they did what law professors do best – write.

RUHL: So we bring this issue into play, and we think it needs to be seriously discussed.

WOODS: One idea that has allowed many renewable energy projects to be built is in Texas. The state has built a one-stop shop for renewable energy permits. And the main difference with this new direction here is that Texas has overridden local laws that could block projects, including environmental laws.

RUHL: It’s been an incredibly effective process to get that infrastructure on the ground – not without controversy.

MA: JB says the federal government could take a similar approach. After all, he says, he has the power to make exceptions for particular projects so they don’t have to comply with every regulation.

RUHL: Do we need a broader and more fundamental overhaul or reform of the system?

WOODS: But if you talk to environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy, they’re not advocating a large-scale rewrite of the laws. On the one hand, it could be used as a political opportunity to completely remove environmental protections. Instead, they want changes like a faster lane for green projects or improving initial site selection to avoid sensitive areas in the first place — also, more federal funds to speed up decision-making.

MA: So while this kind of pinch and tuck, adjust it here, adjust it there, the environmental reform version is going on, JB Ruhl, the law professor – he sees ice shelves stand out in Antarctica, right? He sees historic heat waves and carbon emissions grow and grow. And he fears that it is all too little, too late.

WOODS: Considering the magnitude of the challenge ahead, do you feel optimistic?

RUHL: I’m getting more and more pessimistic over time. I don’t–I think we keep falling behind.

WOODS: Earlier this month, the UN released another report that supported JB’s view, but he said there was still time to change course.

MA: Adrian Ma.

WOODS: Darian Woods, NPR News.

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