The Biden Administration, in a mad and ineffective rush to stave off climate catastrophe, is confounding those who seek protection of threatened and endangered species and habitat. Two recent federal agency decisions champion “sustainable” development over species and habitat protection; an appeal of a third may yield the same result.
In a Utah case, the Surface Transportation Board followed the U.S. Forest Service in green lighting an 88-mile railway that traverses a 12-mile section of the Ashley National Forest, including “roadless” areas. The rail line, which will carry fracking sand and workers to oilfields and sticky crude oil to refineries in Salt Lake City, will enable a fourfold increase in oil production from Utah’s Uinta Basin.
A coalition created by seven Utah counties pushed for approval of the project. The Ute Indian Tribe, which relies heavily on oil and gas revenues, is expected to become an equity partner with the so-called Seven County Infrastructure Coalition. But the Center for Biological Diversity calls project approval “a massive blow to U.S. efforts to address the climate crisis.”
In condemning the Biden Administration’s support for the railway, the Center claimed the project will dig up 400 Utah streams, strip bare or pave over 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat, and add 53 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The nonprofit urged the President to veto the actions of “rogue” agencies to prevent a “massive surge in dirty oil production.”
Forest Service Director Randy Moore dismissed the Center’s complaints. The roadless rule, he noted, does not apply to railroads, which he called an environmentally preferred alternative to trucks. His argument that rail infrastructure actually supports President Biden’s sustainable development policies (outlined in Executive Order 14008) implies that “sustainable” economic growth trumps Nature.
In northwestern Nevada, Lithium Nevada Corporation (a subsidiary of Lithium Americas Corp.) is seeking permits from the Bureau of Land Management to authorize mining the vital metal. The Thacker Pass lithium deposit lies within the footprint of an ancient, extinct super volcano. It is the nation’s largest repository of lithium – one of the world’s largest.
President Biden had promised to increase domestic production of lithium for electric vehicle batteries and multiple other 21st century applications. Even Biden may recognize that the U.S. cannot forever depend solely on China for the raw materials and finished products that drive the “green” economy.
There is just one problem: a tiny flower that grows only in the lithium-rich soils in the footprint of the mine site. After dragging its feet in response to a Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has now agreed to pursue a listing of the Tiehm’s buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act.
In prior ESA cases, a listing might by itself kill a mining project. A 2013 Supreme Court decision upheld the principle that the ESA trumps the 1872 Mining Law. Other courts have also upheld the permanent ban on mining on millions of acres of federal land. But the “need” for lithium, especially in the wake of cries that Biden is backing away from his promise to mine critical minerals, means the Thacker Pass mine may just be delayed and a little less profitable.
Down in far southwestern Nevada, the Bureau of Land Management again found itself in the cross hairs. The Biden Administration’s goal of expanding wind energy generation conflicts with demands from conservationists and Native American tribal leaders that the President designate a 380,000-acre area that includes the wind farm site as the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument.
The BLM this time gave conservationists a bone by designating the proposed site as “low priority” for agency review. But project developer Crescent Peak Renewables LLC intends to appeal the decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals. Part of the company’s argument is that the 68-turbine project would directly affect just 700 of those acres. But will “sustainability” again trump protection?
Richard Morrison, a Competitive Enterprise Institute research fellow, suggests that the Biden bureaucrats would be right to choose policies that advance “a more humanist vision, in which we as human beings protect ourselves from nature while also regulating our impact on nature. We regulate human interactions with the natural world to enable our own continued prosperity.”
Morrison argues that most U.S. environmental statutes, including the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, “have proven politically durable because they sought to protect the air, water, and land for us, not just from us.” Moreover, human health, environmental quality, and GDP have all improved because these statutes were passed and implemented in the context of balancing human health impacts with such concerns as property rights, economic growth, and jobs.
By contrast, said Morrison, the Endangered Species Act was inspired more by an anti-humanist vision of environmentalism that begins with the premise that all human activity is detrimental to the environment. Indeed, a 1978 Supreme Court decision stated that, “It is clear … that Congress intended to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction – whatever the cost.”
Biden’s problem, however, is not just that he favors development of projects that advance the climate catastrophist vision even when such projects infringe on the naturalist vision of a pristine world. This blind devotion to so-called “renewable” energy conflicts with the reality that wind farms and solar arrays actually come with big environmental negatives.
Perhaps the worst outcome of climate-based policy is that it has made air and water quality, forestation, and even biodiversity issues subservient to the pedal-to-the-medal (and unachievable) goal of “net zero carbon emissions” in ever shorter politically dictated timeframes.
Thus, Biden’s primary goal is to end all production of coal, oil, and natural gas – “whatever the cost.” It cannot matter that the “cost” would include using millions of tons of steel, concrete, cobalt, lithium, and fiberglass spread over millions of acres of America. The short timeframes demanded, Morrison reminds us, also fail to consider that the American permitting process – which includes environmental review – add years, even decades, to project timetables.
But perhaps President Biden and his allies believe that the massive buildout to switch from fossil fuels to electricity to heat and power America is worth sacrificing true environmental review and
destroying the landscapes of both the U.S. and the nations that supply the raw materials.
Fortunately, houses made of cards tend to blow over easily.