Public Lands, Dirty Energy

– by Josh Schlossberg, Energy Justice Now

Grassroots advocates have done a bang up job alerting the American public to the disturbing health and environmental impacts of the extraction, transportation, and generation of dirty energy (fossil fuels, nuclear power, and biomass/trash incineration). Greenhouse gases, air pollution, and water contamination from energy sources requiring smokestacks or cooling towers have become common knowledge to all but the willfully ignorant.

However, to achieve a critical mass of action that will influence public policy and shift private investment away from energy sources that cause more harm than good, dirty energy opponents must find common threads to weave the fabric of the movement together.

One such thread involves the harmful impacts dirty energy poses to the forests, prairies, and deserts on public lands that belong to every U.S. citizen.

Musical Chairs

All too often activists fighting one sector of the dirty energy industry will ignore — and occasionally advocate for — yet another type of dirty energy, invalidating many of the very concerns they profess, confusing the public, and harming the overall movement.

For instance, when anti-coal campaigners give a pass to biomass energy, the coal industry gets away with toasting trees in their coal-fired power plants. By endorsing (or allowing) biomass incineration, anti-coal activists contradict their own talking points about air pollution from coal, since trees or other forms of “biomass” actually emit higher levels of deadly particulate matter per unit of energy than the dirtiest fossil fuel. Ironically, a coal facility that starts burning biomass may result in the facility operating longer than it would have otherwise —  continuing to burn more coal along with trees.

The same dynamic is at work when biomass energy opponents insist that natural gas would be a better fuel to burn in a power plant. How can the public, policymakers, and the media take biomass busters’ worries about climate and watersheds seriously when they are in favor of an energy source that leaks vast amounts of methane — a greenhouse gas that is eighty-six times more potent than carbon dioxide over a twenty-year period  — and can be responsible for groundwater contamination through hydraulic fracturing?

Or how about organizations that oppose fossil fuels because of threats to health and the environment while turning a blind eye — and in some ways opening the door — to the riskiest method of energy generation in the world: nuclear power?

In the long run, the lack of a unified dirty energy resistance allows industry to keep proposing facilities in towns without organized resistance to a particular fuel source — a kind of musical chairs where, when the music stops, no chairs are missing.

Common Ground

Despite the valiant efforts of dirty energy opponents, climate change, air pollution, groundwater contamination, and forest destruction keep getting worse while the corporations who perpetrate these environmental crimes upon the American people keep getting stronger. Whatever we’re doing obviously isn’t working; it’s time to circle the wagons.

The key to movement solidarity is finding common ground between anti-fossil fuels, anti-nuclear and anti-incineration efforts. One such strategy — and by no means the only — literally involves finding “common ground”: public lands. While the extraction, transportation, and generation of dirty energy occurs mainly on “private” land, the exploitation of each energy source also impacts National Forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) tracts, and other publicly-owned lands.

The nuclear power industry mines uranium on BLM lands while pushing to dump their deadly radioactive waste in places like Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which includes public land.

An increasing percentage of fracking for natural gas takes place on BLM lands, as does some coal miningAlaska BLM lands are routinely drilled for oil, and despite BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, offshore oil drilling continues. When the energy profiteers aren’t bleeding public lands for fossil fuels, they’re building pipelines through it.

Meanwhile, more and more acres of National Forests and BLM lands are being logged to fuel polluting biomass incinerators, with the biomass and timber industry exploiting the fear of wildfire and insects to “get out the cut” before and after these naturally occurring events.

And no matter the energy source, industry wants to hack transmission lines through our public treasures.

Come Together — Right Now

Each separate component of the dirty energy resistance — anti-fossil fuels, anti-nuke, anti-biomass/trash incineration — has tried going it alone with individual campaigns pointing out the ills of one dirty energy source, and pretending the others don’t exist. While there’s been some positive traction over the years, the only way we’re going to get up the mountain is through mutual support.

Extraction-free public lands solidarity is just one of many ways to link the movement together.

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