Planet Money: The Planet Money Indicator: NPR



SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DROP ELECTRIC SONG, “WAKING UP TO THE FIRE”)

DARIAN WOODS: JB Ruhl is quite concerned about climate change.

JB RUHL: We’re running out of time. We are losing ground. We do not track what is needed to get renewable energy on the ground.

ADRIEN MA, HOST:

JB is a professor of law at Vanderbilt University, and what he’s saying is that America is really slow to build green infrastructure – you know, like solar panels and wind turbines. And he says one of the main reasons America is so slow at this is that we’ve created all kinds of laws and regulations that allow people to challenge new infrastructure projects like highways, power plants electricity and stations.

WOODS: And it’s great for getting local feedback on big projects and helping preserve communities, local landscapes and endangered species. But the irony is that many of these laws that prevent us from building green infrastructure are themselves environmental laws.

MA: And JB knows that firsthand because he worked as a lawyer for wind energy companies.

RUHL: I’ve become more and more aware that laws are just as effective against shutting down green infrastructure if anyone wants it to.

WOODS: This is THE PLANET MONEY INDICATOR. I am Darian Woods.

MA: And I’m Adrian Ma. Today on the show, when environmental rules turn against you – the story of a man who tries to sound the alarm by saying that these 50-year-old laws must be revised.

(MUSIC SOUND EXTRACTION)

MA: So, Darian, today’s show is about how building a low-carbon economy might conflict with environmental laws. And you said you had an example to illustrate that.

WOOD: Yeah. Agreed. So listen here.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAT CHIRPING)

WOODS: So, Adrian, meet the Indiana Bat.

MA: 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 yes, it’s sad. It’s – I’m the first person to say it’s a very sad result. But it’s small compared to Indiana’s total bat population. 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 good for the Indiana bat…

(VOCALIZING BAT SOUND EXTRACTION)

WOODS: …But not so good for other bats or really any wildlife affected by climate change. Like, take this other bat all the way across the Pacific Ocean, the fruit bat – these giant bats in Australia that are actually kind of cute in a gothic way, like these little foxes wearing capes of Dracula.

MA: (Laughs) Yeah. Well, maybe it’s just a phase they’re going through, you know what I mean?

WOOD: Yeah. I mean, it could be. And so now I have acquainted you with these bats. But, you know, I’m sorry to say, Adrian, I also have some bad news about those bats.

MA: No. No more dead bats.

WOODS: Once again, climate change is having a devastating impact on fruit bats. In addition to the terrible wildfires in Australia, these intense heat waves are happening more often and killing bats. So more wind turbines, wherever they are in the world, could save the lives of these bats.

MA: So what – you’re saying that what kills Indiana bats might be good for the Australian bat, but what’s good for the Australian bat might kill the Indiana bat .

WOODS: So, I mean, it’s a tough decision. But, you know, those wind turbines might kill a few bats in Indiana, but they might indirectly save a bunch of fruit bats on the other side of the planet and help slow other kinds of wildlife damage. everywhere, not to mention reducing the blows to the economy from floods and fires.

MA: I mean, I guess it illustrates the tension, though, about what we’ve been talking about here, that global environmental concerns kind of collide with local environmental concerns. And that’s exactly what that Vanderbilt law professor JB Ruhl was talking about, isn’t it? He says renewable energy projects are struggling across the country because of this.

RUHL: There is a long list of challenges for wind and solar installations.

MA: And given the magnitude of the US climate change goals, that’s a problem, isn’t it? Like, just get this – researchers at Princeton looked at some scenarios, and they found that unless Americans drastically reduce their electricity use – that’s probably not going to happen – we’re going to need solar and wind generators covering land the size of Wyoming and Colorado.

WOODS: JB thought there had to be a better way. 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 efficient process to get that infrastructure on the ground. Not without controversy, but it did – in a highly coordinated and efficient manner, they put in place a lot of electrical transmission infrastructure in the field.

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. And as an example, of a very different type of major construction project that you may have heard of – the border wall under the administration of former President Donald Trump. This administration was able to somehow prevent this project from complying with certain federal, state, and local laws.

RUHL: Well, it’s the opposite extreme. And that’s – I mean, we would discuss it just to show that it’s under federal jurisdiction.

WOOD: It’s possible.

RUHL: It is possible. Where between the two is the right balance? Does he continue to modify here and there the existing patchwork of laws to try to speed things up, adjustment after adjustment after adjustment? Or do we need a broader and more fundamental overhaul or reform of the system?

WOODS: So what changes could be made to that middle ground — something that can help address the climate crisis but doesn’t inadvertently make the biodiversity crisis worse, harming things like bats? Indiana mouse? We called someone who lives and breathes this – Brent Keith. He is a senior policy adviser at the Nature Conservancy, which is a non-profit conservation organization.

BRENT KEITH: Yeah, I’m a nature lobbyist or conservationist. Law.

MA: Brent agrees that many green projects are stalled, but he doubts that a large-scale rewrite of the laws makes sense. I mean, on the one hand, he fears that some politicians will take advantage of this to scrap environmental laws altogether. Instead, Brent says one way to speed up green projects could be to give more funding to federal agencies, which would help speed up their decision-making.

WOODS: And so instead of trying to rewrite the laws from scratch, Brent is focusing on system tweaks, like a separate regulatory pathway for projects that help the environment.

KEITH: A project that’s going to have a significant beneficial impact on the environment, we think, should be able to move more quickly in a sort of separate stream because of the positive benefits that getting those projects done sooner would have.

WOODS: Brent also says the Nature Conservancy is trying to help renewable energy companies get better information in advance about possible conflicts with bats, birds and grasslands.

KEITH: The idea is to sort of deconflict the location of renewable resources.

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

This show was produced and verified by Corey Bridges. It was designed by Gilly Moon. Viet Le is our main producer. And Kate Concannon is editing the show. THE INDICATOR is an NPR production.

(MUSIC SOUND EXTRACTION)

MA: Holy – what is that? It’s terrifying.

WOODS So, not so cute now that you’ve seen a picture, Adrian?

MA: I – Okay. In fact, when you look – when you zoom in on his face, it’s kind of cute.

WOODS: Yeah, his face is cute, but it’s pretty terrifying how big he is.

MA: It looks like, a bit – like a seal has dragon wings.

WOOD: Yeah. It’s a pretty amazing animal.

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