The Next Big Issue Is Social License

By Roy L Hales

The transition to renewable energy is coming faster than most people realize. The technological advances that make it the adoption of larger amounts of intermittent energy possible are also needed to reinvigorate North America’s aging grid. Though there is still much resistance from corporations and governments with vested interests, the future of the fossil fuel sector lies in finding ways to fit into a more environmentally sensitive economy. The struggle to avoid Climate Change is not over. There are still many battles ahead, but the outcome has been decided. The next big issue is social license.

What is The Difference?

Photo Credit: Rally against the proposed Kinder Morgan oil pipeline on Burnaby Mountain. Monday, November 17th, 2014. By Mark Klotz via Flickr (CC By SA, 2.0)

What is the difference between the Burnaby residents who opposed Kinder Morgan’s pipeline in British Columbia, last November, and the Southern Californians fighting utility scale renewable energy projects in the desert? On a superficial level, some might argue that the British Colombians were opposing fossil fuels and the Americans green energy. Looking closer, these conflicts are very similar.

In both cases the participants:

  • believe Climate Change has begun
  • believe that society should adopt more renewable energy (the debate in California is about using more environmentally friendly renewables).
  • are fighting the imposition of industrial scale technologies which threaten to disrupt their way of life
  • appear to have been deprived of a voice when it comes to the future of their community.
  • are often forced to oppose the imposition of these technologies by citing less important evidences.

There have been numerous accounts of wind turbines making people sick. The suggestion that this is because of low frequency sounds and infrasound has not found wide acceptance within the scientific community. This does not stop people from losing sleep, experiencing dizziness, migraines, high blood pressure or  self-reported perceived stress and loss to quality of life. It merely gives industry apologists a rationale to dismiss their complaints.

Photo Credit: Ocotillo CA by Jim Pelley

Most residents of Ocotillo, California, do not want to be surrounded by wind turbines. That isn’t why they moved to the desert. Why are their lives being held hostage?

The same question needs to be raised in regard the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. As Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan wrote,

“The economic value of any taxes Kinder Morgan would pay would not offset the negative economic impacts to other businesses and the significant permanent limitations the pipeline right-of-way would put on land-use opportunities. Burnaby has long-term plans – developed with our citizens – for town centre, transportation, residential and recreational developments. All would be severely negatively impacted by the pipeline, tank farm and docks.”

As regards the Site C Dam, the Joint Review Panel’s report sates (p 307), ” … the Project would be accompanied by significant environmental and social costs, and the costs would not be borne by those who benefit…. These losses will be borne by the people of the Valley, some of whom say that there is no possible compensation.”

These are not isolated examples. There is widespread resistance to both oil pipelines and wind energy through-out North America. A number of communities have suffered damage because of large scale dams. Prior to the erection of a dam in 1910, Washington’s Elwah River was one of the most productive fishing areas in North America. Though it was recently removed, it may take decades to restore the river to what it once was.

Same Technologies Have Been Successful

Photo Credit: Area where BC Hydro wants to build the Site C Dam by Andrea Morison

There are also examples where the same technologies have been successful. A study by the Pembina Institute found that there are virtually no complaints about operating wind farms in Alberta. Many concerns were raised prior to construction, but they virtually evaporated after the facility was built. The only explanation was that the wind farms were being built on revenue properties (farms & ranches), instead of being forced upon rural communities. Similarly, there are parts of BC where dams have not caused extensive damage and are accepted by the community.

A Great Deal Of Time And Money

While the success stories are reassuring, local communities and First Nations throughout North America have found it necessary to spend a great deal of time and money defending themselves from government programs. Billions of dollars may have been lost through these actions and their indirect effects. Measured cumulatively, the time loss probably amounts to centuries. Though the Peace River has the potential to be some of the productive agricultural land in the province, few are willing to develop farms which will be submerged if the Sit C Dam is built. Six legal challenges were recently launched to defend this area from (Federal and Provincial) governments.  A far greater number of suits have been mounted in response to BC’s two proposed pipeline projects.

Alfredo Figueroa standing where the True North geoglyph was destroyed to make way for the Blythe Solar Project – from the documentary “Who Are My People?”

First Nations along the Colorado River have been fighting to preserve their sacred sites against industrial scale solar projects since 2010. The most famous of these projects is Ivanpah, which went online last year but still faces legal challenges to its existence. This issue will be brought to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on April 10, 2015.

The US government has attempted to resolve some of the issues in its Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. This +6,000 page document is the result of years of research. It attempts to identify the areas which would be most suitable for renewable energy projects and which are are more suitable for other purposes.

Unfortunately, this appears to yet another policy imposed by presumably well meaning bureaucrats upon local tribes and communities.  The Desert Protective Council, Western Lands Project, and Western Watersheds are challenging it because of the “failure to analyze more environmentally sound alternatives.”

Fails To Ask Questions

According to a recent article by Robert Lundahl, the DRECP fails to ask questions like:

  • “Does it help us move forward as a nation, to remain competitive, while reducing atmospheric carbon and mitigating climate change?”
  • “Does it power our homes and fuel our economies with the best result for the planet and the economy?”
  • Is it what we want?
Photo Credit: Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan Addressing The Crowd At A Demonstration Against Kinder Morgan’s Proposed PIpeline Expansion by Mark Klotz viz Flickr (CC By SA, 2.0 License)

A similar problem arose when ECO Radio interviewed a National Energy Board (NEB) spokesperson about BC’s two proposed pipelines. Her mandate was restricted to the supposed “science” of whether a pipeline works. There was no place to discuss the most important fact to British Columbians: We do not want these projects.

When ECO Radio interviewed a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) official about projects meant for sacred sites along the Colorado River, he could not explain why it was necessary to put solar panels there and not somewhere else.

In both cases the people being interviewed were competent, well educated, individuals whose scope of action was limited by orders from above.

Who Is Driving This Bus?

So who is “driving this bus?”

Some believe Stephen Harper is a tool of the fossil fuel industry; others claim that Barack Obama is carrying out the orders of the green machine.

Could it be that we are witnessing what happens when policies are dictated from above?

An alternative, introduced in the UK almost two years ago, is to give communities and First Nations the final say over industrial scale projects going into their midst. They are more aware of local sensitivities and have good reason to look after local interests. There will undoubtedly still be challenges, but involving local communities in the decision process would smooth out many of the problems and be much closer to the meaning of the word democracy (Greek  Demokratia – “people-power”).

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