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Avoiding the Next Generation of Climate Change Conflicts

This article was published in the Sacramento Bee on August 16, 2009.

California’s move toward an environmental friendly future and green economy is being challenged by an unexpected source: a decision making process that too often pits the concerns of local communities and conservationists against renewable energy developers.

Some of the nation’s fiercest environmental battles have been fought in California. Think about the decades-long Bay Area-Delta water wars or the fights over offshore drilling in Southern California. Today, another and perhaps even larger conflict looms: combating climate change.

Utilities, coalitions of cities and special districts, energy companies and investors across the state are already pitching industrial-scale renewable energy projects such as solar and wind farms. New high-capacity transmission facilities, often running hundreds of miles and including towers and substations, are proposed for many areas. And while these projects have the potential to make a meaningful impact on the state’s carbon footprint, the communities who are being asked to accept these large infrastructure projects are increasingly voicing concern and opposition.

In Northern California, a consortium of cities, irrigation districts and electric utilities planned to build a $1.5 billion string of power lines, towers and substations from northeast California to Sacramento and the Bay Area – a move that would make it possible to import energy from existing hydropower facilities, and geothermal and wind energy projects throughout the Pacific Northwest, California and Nevada. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District looked to the project by the Transmission Agency of Northern California, known as the TANC, as a critical step to meet new state and district renewable energy requirements. But the project was put on hold and probably terminated in early July after local landowners and environmentalists voiced fears about the impact on property rights and the environment.

In 2005, San Diego Gas and Electric started planning the 123-mile-long, $1.3 billion Sunrise Powerlink transmission line project, intended to upgrade the region’s transmission grid and facilitate the import of renewable energy from solar and wind projects in Imperial County. Not surprisingly, plans to route power lines through the Anza Borego Desert State Park triggered fierce opposition. Sponsors redesigned the project to avoid this sensitive area, but environmental opposition is still strong, and legal action is likely if the U.S. Forest Service permits rerouting transmission lines across lands within the Cleveland National Forest.

These two projects share common characteristics. Both have depended on the formal, regulatory decision-making process, rather than creating proactive collaboration among stakeholders. This has created an us-versus-them mindset that focuses on taking political positions rather than exploring common interests. Complex scientific and technical information has often been used to justify opinions and support positions for or against the projects. Time and attitudes have not allowed personal relationships to be created that could focus on a common goal. Moreover, the extent of concern and potential opposition to the projects seems to have been greatly underestimated. Regionalism has also played a role; community activists voice the belief that rural communities would bear the social costs of projects intended to benefit distant cities.

Conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited and the California Waterfowl Association were among organizations that opposed the TANC project due to concerns that it would impact wetlands and wildlife habitat. According to a statement on the Ducks Unlimited Web site by Rudy Rosen of Ducks Unlimited Western Regional Office, “Power lines in the wrong place can kill large numbers of waterfowl and other birds.” Rosen added, “We did not necessarily oppose power lines in general. However, the lines as proposed affected more than just wetlands and waterfowl.” The project was intensely opposed by property owners from Shasta County to Yolo County when they learned that their land would be needed for developing substations, transmission towers and high-voltage lines.

Collaborative Dialogue Needed

How can we reverse or avoid this kind of unproductive decision-making? One way is to use structured collaborative discussions that create negotiated agreements. This approach, called facilitated negotiation or mediation, has been successful in California and throughout the nation in resolving many major environmental issues. Collaborative, interest-based negotiations, if done correctly, create legitimacy in decision-making, promote accountability among and between the parties, and allow all interests to be represented and to fully participate. Moreover, often the result is stable and durable decisions instead of costly and time-consuming appeals and lawsuits.

Two disputes in California that we helped resolve as senior mediators with CONCUR Inc. demonstrate the benefits of organized, collaborative decision making. For years, parties failed to reach agreement on a flood control plan to protect the state capital and other nearby areas from flooding. Finally, in 1994, parties took a different tack, convening a collaborative discussion that brought the full range of players to the table. The dialogue, known as the Lower American River Task Force – sponsored by the Sacramento Flood Control Agency and including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the State Dept. of Water Resources, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, State Fish and Game, Friends of the River and Sacramento area homeowner associations – reached agreement and a comprehensive plan was adopted, including large-scale infrastructure improvements and environmental restoration.

A similar story played out in San Jose starting in 1997 when the threat of a multiparty lawsuit blocked efforts to design and build a flood control measures on the Guadalupe River to restore the habitat for a nearly-extinct chinook salmon run while reducing flooding risk and allowing urban redevelopment in the heart of Silicon Valley. Litigation was put on hold, stakeholders were invited to the negotiating table, the project was redesigned, an agreement was reached and the project moved forward. Both of these projects, it’s worth noting, used collaborative, stakeholder-based negotiations and extensive use of joint fact-finding to clarify complex scientific information and create the technical basis for agreements.

The results of deliberations such as these – dialogues that bring together affected interests in structured negotiations managed by neutral parties and informed by the best available science – help to create new options that can inform policy-making. In California it would be helpful to link and combine collaborative planning for both renewable energy and transmission projects, as both involve closely related environmental and community-based issues.

Stakeholders on Collision Course

The imperative for action is strong. Dozens of solar and wind energy projects are in the pipeline and many more are just over the horizon. The Bureau of Land Management has received more than 150 applications for solar power plants, mostly in the California, Nevada and Arizona border area. The U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees BLM, is working to designate 24 solar study areas covering almost 700,000 acres, including the Mojave Desert. Projects within the study areas would be fast tracked with streamlined federal permitting and environmental review. Already, proponents including utilities, investors and energy companies are lining up to push their preferred approaches; elected officials and resource management agencies are also weighing in.

U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-San Diego, has co-authored legislation that would exempt solar projects on BLM land from environmental review. A contrary view is expressed by Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein who urged the Secretary of Interior to oppose development in a 500,000-acre portion of the Mojave Desert that was purchased by environmental groups between 1999-2004 and transferred to the federal government. Moreover, the National Park Service has told BLM that new solar power plants in Nevada’s desert areas, including the Mojave, may significantly impact groundwater supplies and adversely affect desert ecosystems and endangered species. This confluence of issues and interests is a track wreck waiting to happen.

Establish Regional Councils

So what to do? If approved by Congress, a national cap and trade program will dedicate roughly 10 percent of carbon trading allowances worth up to $10 billion annually to the states. California should establish regional climate change councils able to convene stakeholder-based collaborative meetings throughout the state to help communities make recommendations where and how to build specific green energy projects. In California this effort can build on the work being done by California’s Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative, a statewide planning process intended to help identify transmission projects needed to meet the state’s renewable energy goals.

These stakeholder processes, which should be convened by a neutral party, can augment the energy transmission initiative. Climate change councils should also sponsor community-based dialogues on the issue of adapting to climate change, as difficult decisions will need to be made in coming years, such as whether to relocate or protect costly coastal infrastructure as it is impacted due to a rise in ocean levels. Finally, the councils could coordinate their efforts with the California Air Resources Board as it implements new state requirements to create regional targets for greenhouse gas emissions tied to land use, transportation and housing development.

That attention being paid to climate change by our state and national policymakers is welcome. But to make meaningful progress, we must move forward wisely. Collaborative dialogues that help those advocating for a future that includes green energy projects forge common ground will go a long way in helping policy-makers identify and carry out carbon-reduction strategies that are durable, effective and tap into our nation’s creativity and innovation.


John K, Gamman

Dr. Gamman earned his Ph.D. (1990) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the field of Environmental Planning and Policy Analysis with a concentration in conflict resolution and environmental policy implementation. John also received a Master's Degree in Public Administration (1986) from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University,… MORE >


Scott McCreary

Dr. Scott McCreary is President and Managing Principal at CONCUR Inc, serving as senior facilitator and mediator. He specializes in multiparty deliberations involving water supply and quality, marine resources, land use, species protection, air quality, climate change, renewable energy and other complex natural resource issues. As a facilitator, he focuses on… MORE >

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