To fight climate change, environmentalists may have to give up a fundamental belief

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For decades, environmentalists have made their mark by shutting things down. Oil facilities spewing toxic air pollution. Pipelines that cross aboriginal lands. Drilling for oil and gas.

But climate change is about to change everything. To get U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to zero, experts say, the country is going to have to do something environmentalists traditionally oppose: it’s going to have to build a plot energy infrastructure. And quick.

Currently, many roadblocks prevent the construction of wind, solar and transmission lines that can bring their electricity to city centers. And while Democrats have a bill in the works to speed up this type of clearance, most environmentalists oppose it because it could also promote oil and gas development.

“We are going to have to build a lot more everything clean,” said Josh Freed, director of climate and energy at the center-left think tank Third Way. “The United States is experiencing an infrastructure construction crisis. We can no longer build anything big – much less big and ambitious – in a reasonable time frame.

To reach net-zero carbon emissions, Princeton University study finds, wind farms will need to spread across the Great Plains and the Midwest, covering an area at least equal to the states of Illinois and Indiana. Solar panels will flicker over an area at least as large as Connecticut. And thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines will need to be built to bring all that electricity from where it is generated – mostly in rural parts of the country – to distant urban centers.

And these projects must be operational quickly. According to an analysis by the DecarbAmerica project, solar and wind power in the United States will need to double in the next eight years alone.

For now, however, a miasma of confusing regulations and local opposition have stymied many of these plans. Residents have blocked plans to build wind farms off the coast of New England for decades, complaining it will ruin their ocean views. A transmission line from Pennsylvania to Maryland was blocked by Pennsylvania landowners who argued that the line would not bring enough benefit to their state.

Now, a deal between Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) and Senate Democratic leaders could streamline energy permits. During negotiations on the Cut Inflation Act, the giant health and climate spending bill that passed Congress in August, Democrats promised Manchin they would pass a separate bill this fall, to speed up the process for building permits for energy infrastructure – both fossil fuel and to clean.

Some environmental groups have lambasted the deal, arguing it would accelerate a key Manchin priority, the Mountain Valley Pipeline – a 300-mile pipeline that would transfer natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia – and other development projects. fossil fuels. “Extending the age of fossil fuels perpetuates environmental racism, is totally out of step with climate science, and hampers our nation’s ability to avoid climate catastrophe,” more than 650 environmental groups wrote in a letter sent to Congress late in the day. august. Meanwhile, a group of Appalachian activists are planning a march in DC next week to protest the permit reform deal and the Mountain Valley pipeline.

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But energy experts say that, depending on the structure of the deal, allowing the reform could help the United States transition to clean energy – and ultimately benefit renewables more than fossil fuels. .

For example, Liza Reed, research director for center-right power transmission think tank Niskanen Center, argues that building a more connected electricity grid is absolutely essential to reducing carbon emissions. Wind and solar power, she points out, are rarely located in the same place where electricity is needed. “We have to build a transmission very quickly and very dramatically,” she said. “There’s no two ways about it.”

According to Reed, one thing that could help would be to give the federal government the power to approve the construction of large high-voltage transmission lines. Right now, power lines have to get approval from every state they pass through, including states that may not benefit much from having gigantic power lines weaving over their homes and of their buildings. Federal authority would allow the government to automatically approve transmission lines without getting into the local and state regulatory quagmire. (A similar authority already exists for gas pipelines.)

Romany Webb, senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, says the law is key to ensuring communities are unaffected by energy and pipelines. But, she added, “I think there are ways to streamline the NEPA process so it works better for some of these large renewable energy projects.”

Green groups, however, still have reservations.

“Whatever project is proposed – whether it’s a pipeline, a highway or a solar farm – it should be subject to the same common-sense review process,” said Mahyar Sorour, deputy legislative director of the Sierra Club, in an email. “If we want these projects to move faster, we shouldn’t weaken environmental laws, but invest more resources in agencies and staff.”

It is unclear what the licensing bill will say and whether it will pass. He needs 60 votes under Senate rules to pass, so some Republicans will have to join us. And some Democrats might not vote for it, because any authorizing reform deal will also leave the door open for further fossil fuel extraction.

“The devil is in the details,” Freed said.

Without reform, however, many believe the transition to clean energy will not happen at the pace the country needs.

But this change will be a change for an environmental movement that has spent decades learning to block, not build. This will require careful analysis of how to rapidly expand wind, solar and even nuclear with community input.

“With the passage of the Cut Inflation Act, the environmental movement has broadly endorsed the construction,” Freed said. “Now the question is, ‘How?'”

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