Conflict between longtime foes makes for juicy news. But infighting or controversy within a group of likeminded souls is a story that’s downright irresistible. So, it’s no wonder that journalists pounced at the first sign of disagreement among environmentalists about the ecological impacts of renewable energy projects, pitting climate advocates against champions of wildlife habitat. (See New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times).

JournalismBut the real story—often buried below headlines like “Eco-Wars”—is how these two camps of environmentalists are already working together to reconcile the critical need (and indeed the opportunity) to transition to clean energy to combat global climate change with the need to stick to their guns when it comes to environmental protection and sensitivity to critical habitats.

In fact, just yesterday The Oregon Natural Desert Association released a mapping project that determines optimal sites for responsible wind development in the Oregon desert. They worked with Audubon Society of Portland, Defenders of Wildlife, Hells Canyon Preservation Council, Oregon Sierra Club, and WildEarth Guardians to put it together.

We’ll likely see more and more of this kind of cooperation. As Johanna Wald, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council put it in the Washington Post, “There is no free lunch when it comes to meeting our energy needs,” She added, however, that the renewables boom “offers a chance to do it right.”

“We want to do it differently compared to how we did oil and gas development.”

  • More on everybody getting along and playing well together in a minute. First, it’s important to acknowledge that the tension is a real one. Eight western states have established “renewable energy portfolio standards” which means there’s a new and booming demand for permit for big renewable projects—especially on federal land in the West.

    And the impacts won’t be insignificant. Our friend the sage-grouse is one potential casualty if projects are rushed into headlong and aren’t built responsibly:

    In some cases, scientists are just beginning to discover the unintended effect of projects such as wind turbines. Grassland birds such as the lesser prairie chicken and the greater sage-grouse , both of which are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act, appear to avoid vertical structures such as wind turbines and transmission-line towers. This is proving to be a problem in states such as Kansas, an ideal site for wind power, because as more turbines are built, lesser prairie chickens will confine themselves to narrow ranges, fragmenting a population that must be connected to survive.

    Sage-grouse populations in the Northwest—Oregon, Idaho, and Washington—are already suffering (See Sightline’s sage-grouse report, hot off the presses today). But of course clean energy development can be done in an ecologically responsible way. Projects intended to curb climate change and unhitch our economy from volatile and dangerous fossil fuels should be subject to exactly the same standards as any other new development. This is where the cooperation comes in. And the outlook is sunnier than the headlines would lead you to believe.

    As the NYT reports:

    A reconciliation between the two environmental camps seems likely. As national and state targets mandate more and more renewable-energy projects, many say, environmentalists will have an incentive to work jointly to broker solutions with politicians and the energy industry.

    And from the Washington Post:

    In many instances, producers of renewable energy are coordinating with environmental groups and federal agencies to try to map out the best locations for energy production, whether in the West or offshore. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society have created an online mapping project, using Google Earth, of 13 Western states to show where renewable projects would have the most impact. Out of the 860 million acres in those states, for example, there are 10,000 conservation areas, and 128 million acres are off limits to energy development.

    One environmentalist working toward solutions that everyone can live with said it best: “It’s not enough to say no to things anymore,” Carl Zichella, a Sierra Club expert on renewable power told the New York Times. “We have to say yes to the right thing.”