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Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra American) graze among the sage and drilling infrastructure in the Jonah Oil and Gas Field near Pinedale, Wyoming. Photo © David Stubbs
Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra American) graze among the sage and drilling infrastructure in the Jonah Oil and Gas Field near Pinedale, Wyoming. Photo © David Stubbs

By Nels Johnson, Director – North America Energy, The Nature Conservancy

One of my strongest childhood memories is the smell of dust and sagebrush on a warm summer morning over four decades ago, delivered in a bouncing, open truck driven through the Badlands of North Dakota.

We drove along and across the Little Missouri River edged by fantastic gumbo cliffs and turreted rock formations that towered above, with mule deer, elk, coyotes, and even bison encountered along the way.

Ultimately the jeep trail ended in a grove of huge cottonwoods, perhaps as far from a major city as anywhere in the lower 48 states. Looking back, I realize that trip played an important role in directing me towards a career in conservation.

Tortoise Mojave BLM
Tortoise Mojave BLM

This same location had a powerful effect on another American, a century earlier. Desperate for solace after the passing of his wife and mother, a young Theodore Roosevelt arrived at the same place to hunt the last of the northern Great Plains bison, and raise cattle at his Elkhorn Ranch. When he left three years later, the power of nature’s healing beauty and, conversely, witnessing its desecration, planted the seeds of the modern conservation movement within him.

Today the Elkhorn Ranch has a different feel, as it sits on the fringes of the Bakken formation, the world’s largest shale oil field. In just a few years, the pitch black and dizzying plethora of stars that used to surround Roosevelt on his front porch at night has been transformed into a dull orange glow, with thousands of gas flares flaming atop nearby oil wells. Viewed from a satellite, today this remote and sparsely populated region of western North Dakota lights up the night as bright as a city the size of Dallas or Chicago.

In fact, energy development is the largest driver of land use change in the United States. Recent research by scientists at The Nature Conservancy indicates an area the size of Minnesota could be converted to meet the United States’ shifting energy demands by 2040.

So we face a climate change conundrum: how do we make the rapid, massive and necessary investments in low carbon and renewable energy to avoid damage to the lands, water and oceans upon which all life depends, without compromising the health of these same lands, waters and oceans upon which all life depends?

Answering this question may be one of the greatest environmental challenges our world has ever faced.  But we can do it.

Look to Southern California, where this past week U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell released a plan that streamlines commercial-scale wind, solar, and geothermal power development on 600 square miles of federal lands.

This forward-thinking plan, called the “Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan” (DRECP), helps direct renewable energy development to lower conflict areas, while steering development away from important water and wildlife resources so future generations of Americans can still enjoy them.

All told, the DRECP focus areas could help generate 27,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2040— enough to power eight million homes and help meet California’s 2030 renewable energy goal.

This kind of proactive energy planning is benefiting energy businesses, too, by speeding up the permitting process needed to start a development project on federal lands.

For example, over the border in Nevada, the Bureau of Land Management recently permitted three new solar projects that would generate 440 megawatts. The projects were approved in 10 months, less than half the average permitting time.

DRECP, LUPA – Major Land All Locations
DRECP, LUPA – Major Land All Locations (click for larger version)

All of these new renewable projects were helped by new federal policies, including an executive order from President Obama, that promote a smart approach to energy development on federal lands that identify:

  • Where energy development is incompatible with land and water resources;
  • Which areas can best accommodate different types of energy development; and
  • How best to offset the inevitable impacts that any form of energy development will have.

Of course these new policies could easily fade if they do not live up to their promise. The challenge now is for us to quickly put these plans into action, so we can successfully ride the wave of renewable energy development without compromising our natural heritage, because ultimately that represents true success.

On that trip so many years ago, I imagined what it would have been like to sit with Teddy Roosevelt on his porch as the sun went down, looking out across the wild horizon. But if I were there with him today, I think I know what he would say:

“I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”

President Teddy Roosevelt
“The New Nationalism”
August 31, 1910

Nels Johnson was born and raised on the northern Great Plains, and today he lives in Bozeman, MT. He has a B.A. from Reed College and an M.F.S. from the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His career has taken him from Montana to Papua New Guinea and many places in between. When time permits, Nels is likely to be making a mess in the kitchen, bailing out his kayak, or getting lost in the woods on his skis.