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Environmental laws can be an obstacle in building green energy infrastructure


Renewable energy is a key tool for fighting climate change. But building the infrastructure to produce, say, wind or solar power can sometimes run into legal roadblocks, like laws aimed at protecting the environment. Darian Woods and Adrian Ma from our daily economics podcast The Indicator explain.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: So, Adrian, meet the Indiana bat.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: That's a bat?

WOODS: It is this cute little bat found in the Midwest. It's brown. It's found in caves.

MA: I didn't know that bats could tweet. That's adorable.

WOODS: (Laughter) And look - it's an endangered species. It's in decline. And the reason I bring it up is because, in 2006, there was this proposed wind farm in Ohio - 70 wind turbines - this big project. Local neighbors didn't like the idea of these towering turbines being so close to their land, and they sued the wind turbine company for all kinds of things, but one particular complaint stuck. They said that the turbines might hurt the bats. About five of these bats might die every year after colliding with the turbines. And after years of legal fighting in courtrooms all around the country, the wind farm company eventually gave up. The project was abandoned in 2019. And that is great for the Indiana bat, but not so good for wildlife in other parts of the world threatened by climate change, not to mention the hits to the economy from more floods and droughts.

JB RUHL: There is a long list of challenges to wind and solar power facilities.

WOODS: J.B. Ruhl is a law professor at Vanderbilt University. J.B. says we've created all kinds of laws and regulations that allow people to challenge big projects like train stations, solar farms and wind farms, and that includes environmental laws.

MA: And that's great for getting local input and helping preserve communities, local landscapes, endangered species. But given the urgency of climate change, J.B. says this is a problem, and there had to be a better way.

WOODS: So he paired up with another law professor, James Salzman, and they did what law professors do best - write.

RUHL: So we're putting this issue in play, and we think it needs to be seriously discussed.

WOODS: One idea that has allowed a lot of renewable energy projects to get built is in Texas. The state built a one-stop shop for renewable energy permitting. And the key difference with this new direction here is that Texas overrode local laws that might block the projects, including environmental laws.

RUHL: It was an amazingly efficient process for getting that infrastructure on the ground - not without controversy.

MA: J.B. says the federal government could take a similar approach. After all, he says, it does have the power to kind of make exceptions for particular projects so they don't have to comply with every single regulation.

RUHL: Do we need some broader and more fundamental overhaul or reform of the system?

WOODS: But if you talk to environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy, they're not advocating for a large-scale rewrite of laws. For one thing, that could be used as a political opportunity to strip away environmental protections completely. Instead, they want changes like a faster pathway for green projects or improving initial site selection to avoid sensitive areas in the first place - also, more federal funds to speed up decision making.

MA: So as this sort of nip and tuck, tweak it here, tweak it there version of environmental reform is going on, J.B. Ruhl, the law professor - he is seeing ice shelves break off in Antarctica, right? He's seeing historic heat waves and carbon emissions grow and grow. And he is worried that this is all going to be too little, too late.

WOODS: Given the scale of the challenge ahead, do you feel optimistic?

RUHL: I'm growing more pessimistic over time. I don't - I think we're continuing to fall behind.

WOODS: Earlier this month, the U.N. issued another report that backed up J.B.'s view, but it did say there's still time to change course.

MA: Adrian Ma.

WOODS: Darian Woods, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.
Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.