A favorite pastime of certain journalists on slow news days is to ponder what global warming will mean for agriculture. It’s easy enough to drive out to the country and find somebody in overalls willing to blame the latest flood, drought, windstorm or six-legged pest outbreak on the increased carbon in the atmosphere. The tone that most of the resulting stories take regarding the food supply is enough to drive the average reader into the basement with a few cases of freeze-dried energy bars.
Reporters should spend more time questioning what the climate-change agenda means for farmers in the here and now. The drive to replace fossil fuels has already changed the countryside. Solar panels blanket thousands of acres, wind turbines dot hilltops, and hundreds of miles of transmission lines carry electricity from those sites to the places where it’s needed.
At first, most rural residents were excited. Landowners were paid for allowing wind turbines to be set up on their property. The construction was an economic boon for their communities. School districts and local governments appreciated the increased property-tax revenue. Although some opposition to windmills has formed, willing partners still can be found for most projects.
It’s not clear, however, that this will always be true, particularly when it comes to the transmission lines that service these installations. In March 2014 a private company attempting to cross Missouri with a high voltage line applied to the state for utility status, which would have effectively granted it the power of eminent domain. Farmers and rural residents rebelled, and the Missouri Public Service Commission denied the application this summer.
When the local power company wanted to run a transmission line across my grandfather’s farm in 1946, it paid him $10 a pole for his trouble. Those poles are still a pain today. They curtail our ability to irrigate, and they’re awkward to maneuver farm implements around, since they weren’t placed with modern machinery in mind. When my brother’s 100-foot-wide sprayer came into inadvertent contact with the high-voltage line a few years ago, he had an experience that he will never forget. The electricity passed through the tractor, scrambling its digital brains, and traveled from the boom to the ground like a lightning bolt.
But I’m sure that my grandfather never regretted agreeing to those poles. People needed electricity to heat homes and power radios and televisions and all the other conveniences of modern life. Hosting the power line helped our neighbors. It was part of being a good citizen.
The case for permanently changing the countryside to theoretically shave a fraction of a degree off global temperatures sometime in the next century is considerably less convincing to Missouri landowners. After the Public Service Commission reached its decision, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri’s leading newspaper, editorially chastised farmers for their reluctance to sacrifice for the sake of the planet: “If rural landowners in Missouri don’t give a little and embrace ways to save the Earth from global warming, more than farming as they know it could be at stake.”
The U.S. is responsible for emitting some 13% of the world’s carbon, down from 24% in 2000. Or at least that’s the best estimate, since some countries are less than forthright on the matter. Reports last month suggested that China has understated its emissions by almost a billion tons a year. To put that figure in perspective: President Obama’s Clean Power Plan calls for reducing carbon emissions from electricity generation by 32%, or 870 million tons annually. Even if the plan is successful, any global progress that the administration expected already has been swallowed by the revision in China’s emissions figures.
The effects of the Clean Power Plan at home, however, will be anything but inconsequential. Electricity prices will rise. The economy will be crippled in places where coal is mined. Increased construction of wind turbines and solar panels and transmission lines will turn pastoral areas into an extended substation.
When the proposal for that power line in Missouri was announced, one of my friends, a farmer, discovered that a 140-foot transmission tower was to be located not in one of his open fields, but in the corner of his yard, about 250 feet from his front door. Although landowners here have won a temporary victory, and his yard is safe for now, rural residents can only expect further encroachment by clean-energy projects.
Changes to the landscape are inevitable. But farmers shouldn’t be conscripted to serve a climate-change agenda. States should think twice before granting the power of eminent domain to developers of renewable-energy projects, who should have to negotiate with individual landowners like everybody else.
Mr. Hurst is a farmer and the president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.
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