COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

Think audaciously: time to improve CEQA

It’s time to improve the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) so that its use and abuse no longer willy-nilly present various and sundry barriers to building vitally necessary large-scale wind and solar projects in California.

This is a fundamental step in defense of the wild world, a step required in order to avoid massive habitat destruction.

The more you know about the reality of global warming, the more dread and urgency you feel. It’s not mere nagging irritation, but visceral dread and anguish for wildlife, losses to farmers, destruction of forests, and the smothering blanket of chaos as society is called upon in too many directions.

Think of post-Sandy New York, but with no one able to lend help.

Our society, through the efforts of a very small number of people within it, is wasting stunning amounts of time in relatively useless, pro forma, or trifling environmental studies related to large-scale solar and wind projects, time which we can never regain, no matter the effort.

This wasted time not only sustains status quo GHG emissions, it ensures considerable ongoing harm to wildlife habitat now and in the future.

By any measure, these large-scale renewable energy projects are the best and speediest long-term physical mitigation measures against far more vast environmental harm which will otherwise inevitably arise locally and world-wide from global warming.

Indeed, all else pales in comparison to the enormous scale, scope, intensity and duration of the destruction and habitat loss which is now and will result in the future from global warming.

That harm is caused by greenhouse gases which, through delays, have already been released and those we will certainly otherwise release to the atmosphere if we fail to rapidly change how we produce electricity and transport ourselves. Delays measured in years translate into irreversible harm over decades.

Oft advocated approaches involving “conservation” and “solar-on-rooftop (SOR),” while able to contribute a small amount of GHG emissions reduction, ultimately bump up against logistical, practical, economic and technical problems which overwhelm both the electrical grid and fail to take advantage of economies of scale.

Moreover, the snail’s pace speed of their deployment alone militates against first focusing on the leisurely “slow walk,” SOR approach.

Consider: in sunny San Diego County, for all time, only 150 MW of solar PV has been placed on rooftops. In one year, 900 MW of large-scale solar PV located on degraded farmland will be available via the Sunrise Powerlink, and at a price the poor, not merely the wealthy, can afford. Amazingly, environmentalists have and are, seeking to block or delay these large-scale solar projects.

The comparatively minor damage incurred attendant construction of large scale renewable wind and solar energy projects will aid to bulwark against a rather rapid and potentially overall or total loss of habitat for a vast array of plants and creatures.

For those who doubt this, ask how long plants and animals can last with little or no water and at elevated temperatures now associated with current droughts and those which will increasingly be present across the United States and the world. This is no local or fleeting matter.

The hour-glass is literally running out to the last grain. Note that earlier this month, Australian Dr. Elizabeth G. Hanna, a fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health, National Convenor on Climate Change, reportedly offered the following stark yet understated view: “Those of us who spend our days trawling – and contributing to – the scientific literature on climate change are becoming increasingly gloomy about the future of human civilization.” Gloomy!

In the last few months, the World Bank warned in blunt terms that human civilization cannot survive a world which warms more than 4 degrees centigrade (C). We are already on our way to pass 2 degrees, and only profound and rapid action and massive intervention to transform our energy and transportation systems will head off what MIT projects as a 7 degree C rise by 2100. We will never endure to reach 7 C; that is a bridge far too far.

Finally, the recently released draft U.S. Climate Assessment projects between 9 and 15 F rise for the US from 2071 through 2099. Little wild will survive to witness it.

Nevertheless, today we are systematically met with years of legal delay tactics by vocal environmental and other groups who find ways to niggle over projects and offer fanciful alternatives, even as they sue to gain attorney fees. In our own defense, and in defense of nature, we absolutely must cut down the time and delays for large-scale renewable energy projects.

I’m not advocating setting aside all standards and practices; far from it. But on balance, we need to focus on rapidly deploying the viable large-scale wind and solar PV alternatives we now possess in energy-rich places in order to quickly transform our current exogenous energy systems. Anything less and we risk holding a losing hand in the biggest gamble ever attempted by humanity.

We must wean environmentalists and others away from perverse incentives by improving and refining CEQA.

Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at daniel.coffey@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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