Laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act were written in the 1970s to protect the natural world from people and developments. Today, climate change is posing another threat to the natural and built worlds. Researchers at Princeton University estimate that, unless Americans dramatically reduce energy use, the amount of solar and wind energy required to meet the country’s climate goals is the size of Wyoming and Colorado combined. But J.B. Ruhl, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, says that environmental laws are, ironically, getting in the way.
Today, we compare and contrast the threats to two different bats on opposite ends of the planet to show the tension between local and global environmentalism, and how building a green economy is forcing people to have tough conversations about trade-offs.
SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, “WAKING UP TO THE FIRE”)
DARIAN WOODS: J.B. Ruhl is pretty concerned about climate change.
JB RUHL: We’re running out of time. We’re losing ground. We are not keeping up with what’s needed to get renewable energy on the ground.
ADRIAN MA, HOST:
J.B. is a law professor at Vanderbilt University, and what he’s saying is that America is really slow at building green infrastructure – you know, like, solar panels and wind turbines. And he says a big reason America is so slow at this is because we’ve created all kinds of laws and regulations that allow people to challenge new infrastructure projects like highways, power plants and train stations.
WOODS: And that is great for getting local input on big projects and helping preserve communities, local landscapes and endangered species. But the irony is that a lot of these laws stopping us from building green infrastructure are themselves environmental laws.
MA: And J.B. knows this firsthand because he’s worked as a lawyer with wind power companies.
RUHL: I became increasingly aware of how the laws are equally as effective against stopping green infrastructure if someone wants to.
WOODS: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I’m Darian Woods.
MA: And I’m Adrian Ma. Today on the show, when environmental rules backfire – the story of a man who is trying to ring the alarm bell, saying these 50-year-old laws are due for an overhaul.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MA: So, Darian, today’s show is about how building a low-carbon economy might collide with environmental laws. And you said you had an example to illustrate that.
WOODS: Yeah. All right. So listen here.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAT CHIRPING)
WOODS: So, Adrian, meet the Indiana bat.
MA: 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 yeah, that’s sad. It’s – I’m the first person to say that is a very sad outcome. But it is small relative to the total Indiana bat population. 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…
(SOUNDBITE OF BATS VOCALIZING)
WOODS: …But not so good for other bats or really any wildlife affected by climate change. Like, take this other bat all the way across the Pacific Ocean, the fruit bat – these giant bats in Australia that are actually kind of cute in a goth kind of way, like these little foxes wearing Dracula capes.
MA: (Laughter) Yeah. Well, maybe that’s just a phase they’re going through, you know what I mean?
WOODS: Yeah. I mean, it could be. And so now I’ve got you acquainted with these bats. But, you know, I’m sorry to say, Adrian, I’ve got bad news about these bats, too.
MA: No. No more dead bats.
WOODS: Once again, climate change is having a devastating impact on the fruit bats. Along with Australia’s terrible wildfires, these intense heat waves happening more often, and it’s killing the bats. So more wind turbines, wherever they are in the world, could be a lifesaver for these bats.
MA: So what – you’re saying what’s killing the Indiana bats could be good for the Australian bat, but what’s good for the Australian bat could kill the Indiana bat.
WOODS: So, I mean, this is a hard decision. But, you know, these wind turbines might kill a few Indiana bats, but they could indirectly save a bunch of fruit bats on the other side of the planet and help with slowing down the other kinds of harms to wildlife everywhere, not to mention reducing the hits to the economy from floods and fires.
MA: I mean, I guess this does illustrate the tension, though, about what we’ve been talking about here, which is global environmental concerns are sort of butting up against local environmental concerns. And that’s exactly what this Vanderbilt law professor, J.B. Ruhl, was talking about, right? He says renewable energy projects struggle all around the country because of this.
RUHL: There is a long list of challenges to wind and solar power facilities.
MA: And given the scale of America’s climate change goals, this is a problem, right? Like, just get this – researchers at Princeton looked at some scenarios, and they found that unless Americans drastically cut their electricity usage – probably not going to happen – we will need solar and wind generators covering land the size of Wyoming and Colorado.
WOODS: J.B. had been thinking that there had to be a better way. 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, but it was – in a highly coordinated and efficient way, they put a lot of electric transmission infrastructure on the ground.
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. And as an example, from a very different kind of big construction project you might have heard of – the border wall under the administration of former President Donald Trump. That administration was able to sort of protect that project from complying with certain federal, state and local laws.
RUHL: Well, that’s the opposite extreme. And that’s – I mean, we would discuss that only to show that that is within federal authority.
WOODS: It is possible.
RUHL: It is possible. Where, in between, is the right balance? Is it continuing to tweak the existing mosaic of laws here and there to try and speed things up tweak after tweak after tweak? Or do we need some broader and more fundamental overhaul or reform of the system?
WOODS: So what changes could be made in that middle ground – something that can help with the climate crisis but doesn’t inadvertently worsen the biodiversity crisis, harming things like the Indiana bat? We called up somebody who lives and breathes this – Brent Keith. He’s a senior policy adviser at the Nature Conservancy, which is a conservation nonprofit.
BRENT KEITH: Yeah, I’m a lobbyist for nature or an advocate for nature. Right.
MA: Brent agrees that a lot of green projects do get stalled, but he’s skeptical that a large-scale rewrite of laws would make sense. I mean, for one thing, he’s worried that some politicians might use it as an opportunity to strip away environmental laws completely. Instead, Brent says one way to speed up green projects might be to give federal agencies more funding, and that would help speed up their decision-making.
WOODS: And so instead of trying to rewrite laws from scratch, Brent is focused on adjustments to the system, like a separate regulatory pathway for projects that help the environment.
KEITH: A project that’s going to have a significant beneficial impact on the environment, we think, ought to be able to move forward faster in a sort of separate stream because of the positive benefits to getting those projects done sooner would have.
WOODS: Also, Brent says that the Nature Conservancy is trying to help renewable energy companies have better information about possible conflicts with bats and birds and grasslands ahead of time.
KEITH: The whole idea is to sort of deconflict the siting of renewable resources.
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: This week, the U.N. issued another report that backed up J.B.’s view, but it did say there’s still time to change course.
This show was produced and fact-checked by Corey Bridges. It was engineered by Gilly Moon. Viet Le is our senior producer. And Kate Concannon edits the show. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MA: Holy – what the hell is this? That is terrifying.
WOODS: So not so cute now that you’ve seen a picture, Adrian?
MA: I – OK. Actually, when you look at – when you zoom in on its face, it’s kind of cute.
WOODS: Yeah, it’s face is cute, but it’s, like, pretty terrifying how large it is.
MA: It looks, like, kind of – like a seal grew dragon wings.
WOODS: Yeah. It’s a pretty amazing animal.
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