Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Confronting Energy Tyranny

Credit: Photo Courtesy of Erie Rising

Grassroots activists defend community, democracy and the planet

By Ceal Smith
Based on an article originally published in the Resist newsletter: 
Confronting Energy Tyranny (July/August 2012)

An aggressive energy boom is sweeping across the country. And although the technologies are new, the consequences for people and the planet are familiar. For those of us caught in the crosshairs, hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) and (ironically) massively scaled, remote-concentrated solar are two of the newest and most disastrous dangers being forced upon our communities and the planet.

To those of us monitoring these trends, the right to clean and healthy energy sources that don't undermine our health and the planet is paramount; the right to have elected government representatives hear and respond to citizen concerns is pivotal. But both are under attack. 

People’s health, safety, welfare and their lifelong dreams of sustainability are routinely crushed by what can only be called a form of tyranny—“energy tyranny.” Every day, we witness and feel government exerting oppressive power on behalf of big energy interests—the biggest and most powerful industry in human history. 

Unless we act, the energy industry will wield its considerable political and economic power to force communities to live with dangerous oil and gas wells in their watersheds, backyards, school grounds and public parks. It will monopolize the sun and wind by promoting massive industrial renewable energy power plants on vast tracts (more than 19 million acres) of our ecologically valuable public lands while our rooftops, parking lots and vast urban point of use “solestate” bakes in the sun.

The Dark Side of Renewables

Against the odds, activists are taking a stand against this tyranny.  We are doing so in unexpected and innovative ways that lay the foundation for a rational and equitable energy future that empowers communities, protects the planet, and moves us back from the brink of a runaway climate crisis.

Six years ago, working at the grassroots of this new energy activism, I joined with small but determined groups of citizens seeking to protect rural Colorado communities, first from oil and gas development, then from massive solar industrialization. More recently, I’ve engaged in the larger quest for a democratic energy system that empowers people and communities and paves the way for a truly independent renewable energy future. 

The first of these new efforts entailed a five-year lawsuit that halted US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to allow oil and gas drilling and fracking in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Following a favorable federal court ruling, negotiations are underway for a mineral rights buy-back that will put an end to the threat of drilling in one of the nations newest and largest wildlife Refuges. 

The San Luis Valley, CO has long been known for its solar-energy-generation potential. Its high altitude “cool sun” and clear skies drew a small flock of solar innovators in the 1960s. By the mid-1980s, the federal Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Lab) recognized the valley for having the highest per capita number of residential and small commercial solar installations in the nation. Naturally, we advocated for solar energy as an alternative to oil and gas development. 

So in 2007, it was a shock to discover that the Department of Interior, the Department of Energy, and then-Governor Bill Ritter’s Energy Office were advancing plans for a new kind of solar energy generation.

ISEGS industrial solar power tower plant on public lands, Ivanpah Valley, CA
Remotely sited “concentrating solar power,” as it is known, enables investor-owned utility and energy developers to monopolize the solar commons by bulldozing and industrializing vast swaths of public and private lands. This is the same environment and community-destroying energy model as conventional fossil fuel energy extraction, a distinction overlooked by many mainstream environmental groups. 

In 2009, the now defunct Tessera Solar launched a bid to install 8,000 forty-foot high, hydrogen-powered solar disk mirrors (called "Sun Catchers") on 1,500 acres in the heart of the valley’s centennial organic, grass-fed ranching community. An eclectic group of citizens (including several lifelong solar advocates) quickly united to defeat Tessera’s misplaced plan to transform the valley’s century-old sustainable ranching community into a massive corporate-owned energy industrial zone.  After two years of community scrutiny that was headed for litigation, Tessera withdrew the project. 

The irony of engaging in environmental activism to oppose solar energy wasn’t lost on us. To fill the gap, a few of us founded the Renewable Communities Alliance in late 2009. Our goals are two-fold.  First, to educate our neighbors, the larger energy activist community and public officials about the destructive potential of remote concentrated solar power.  The second is to educate and advocate for distributed renewable energy generation; what we believe is the faster, more efficient, cost-effective, and equitable energy development model that renews whole communities without further harming the environment.

My work with the Renewable Communities Alliance instilled a deep appreciation for the revolutionary potential of distributed renewable energy generation.  Localizing renewable energy production shifts the power from irresponsible energy corporations to people, local businesses and communities.  It incentivizes energy conservation and efficiency and revitalizes local economies.  

In contrast, the “all of the above” policy being pushed on us by industry and government will only deepen our dependence on increasingly costly and destructive energy sources, while growing new and ever-expanding energy markets.  This growth model will ultimately do little to stem global-warming while costing consumers, ratepayers and taxpayers billions.

Gas and Oil Back Again

In the midst of all this, the oil and gas boom hit Colorado – part of the new wave of environmental crimes that energy companies are committing across the country. 

In July 2011, a friend sent out a call for help from Huerfano County, on the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from where I lived.  It was a familiar story. 

Huerfano County residents had just learned that Shell Oil had a green light from state regulators to drill a 14,000-foot-deep exploratory well a stone’s throw from the rural artist community of La Veta. I drove over the mountain to lend my support at the public hearing where county commissioners would decide on approval of Shell’s conditional use permit. 

Hundreds of people poured in from all corners of the rural front range county, many waiting up to 5 hours to testify. Person after person called on their commissioners to deny Shell’s permit, asking them to instead place a moratorium on oil and gas drilling until new regulations could be adopted that protected their health, homes and communities.

The concerns of the commissioners’ informed and distraught constituents fell on deaf ears. They approved Shell’s plan as though the public hearing had never occurred (we later learned that member's of the commission had signed leases with Shell).

Despite the distressing failure of their elected officials to hear or respond to their concerns, or perhaps because of it, community members quickly moved to organize the Citizens for Huerfano County (CHC).

CHC immediately filed a lawsuit against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for approving Shell’s permit without proper notification, thus depriving the public of its right to comment and request a hearing - routine oversights that regulators are not used to being called on. A year and numerous legal briefs and six-hour commutes to Denver later, CHC‘s lawsuit is still pending.  Attorneys on the case have called it, “one of the very few meaningful things happening in the state to address the concerns citizens have over granting drilling permits without adequate review”.  

Just as Tessera threatened Saguache County’s sustainable range-fed ranching economy, Shell Oil’s scheme to develop 2,600 oil and gas wells is undermining hard-fought efforts throughout Huerfano to transition to resilient and self-sustaining communities—a dream that has drawn many sustainable-minded people to the pristine rural area since the 1960s. Instead, Shell has locked the people and communities in a high-stakes battle for a livable future. 

Under direction of a smart and highly dedicated board of directors, CHC grew quickly to more than 530 members—no small feat in a rural, low-income county of less than 8,000.

As a neighbor, member and consultant, I’ve watched, and at times helped CHC plan and implement an exhaustive campaign to inform and empower its members and create state and local government accountability and transparency where there has been none.  

Guided by its mission to protect the public health, safety and environment from the effects of oil and gas development, CHC takes community defense very seriously.  Members organized well adjudication workshops and partnered with the Colorado Water Institute and Colorado State University to launch a water-testing program to help local residents get drinking wells tested in advance of drilling. On top of it all, they’ve maintained a strong fundraising campaign to finance the ongoing COGCC lawsuit. 

Despite these efforts, Shell pushed four new well approvals through this past June. CHC’s activities have led to improved protections including water quality testing, but many concerns remain unaddressed. CHC plans to ramp up its community defense program to address critical gaps caused by industry exemptions to the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and other environmental laws. 

Defending community, democracy and the planet

By shutting out the voice of the people and affected communities, the force of energy tyranny blocks our ability to forge a sane and sustainable energy future. We are simultaneously told that industrial energy development will bring jobs and energy independence, but that local, distributed solar energy is too expensive, unreliable and insufficient to meet our growing energy appetites. We experience firsthand rising temperatures and extreme weather events–like the wildfires that raged through Colorado earlier this year and the more recent Superstorm Sandy —as our governor declares fracking safe and natural gas a necessary “bridge fuel” to combat global warming. 

Awakened by these new threats to our lives, livelihoods and future people are seeing through the lies and deception. More than a dozen new citizen groups have organized to defend Colorado communities against what has become an aggressive assault on community rights, democracy and the environment. In the counties of Rio Grande, El Paso, Delta, Park, Routt, Elbert, Adams and Boulder, citizens are organizing. In the towns and cities of Colorado Springs, Commerce City, Denver, Loveland, Erie, Longmont and Fort Collins, farmers, artists, parents and other ordinary citizens are putting their regular lives on hold to defend their children, their communities and their dreams of a better future. 

Through many twists and turns, I've become convinced that the only way to regain control over our energy future is to work for energy democracy. As Hermann Scheer, the German parliamentarian widely recognized for his nation’s solar success, once pointed out:
We’re in a race between centralized and decentralized, energy monopoly and energy democracy. The mobilization of society is most important and once people realize they can’t wait for the government or utilities, but can do it themselves, it will change...People need to act to overcome administrative and bureaucratic barriers that hinder renewable energy. The rules favoring conventional energy and blocking decentralized renewable energy need to be exposed and dismantled.
My ultimate vision is to build a national grassroots movement for energy democracy that unites anti-fractivists and community rights, clean energy, conservation and climate change activists. Such a movement will necessarily include millions of ordinary citizens who just want affordable energy that doesn’t destroy anyone’s backyard, schoolyard, park or the planet.

Ceal Smith is a biologist, community organizer and consultant. She works with Citizens for Huerfano County, a RESIST grantee. She is the founder of the Renewable Communities Alliance, project manager for the Grassroots EnErgy activist Network (GREEN) and a cofounder of Solar Done Right.

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