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Fast Tracking Extinction: The Rush to Streamline Permitting for “Green” Energy

May 15, 2023

With more than three hundred billion dollars in the pipeline for alternative energy infrastructure, which is known to require huge amounts of land, Americans now confront the ecological reality of what all that industrial development means for their non-human cohabitants trying to survive on America’s increasingly fragmented landscapes. A recent study by the organization NatureServe throws the matter into grim relief. “Biodiversity in the United States is in crisis,” it says, with 40% of animals in the US headed for extinction along with 34% of plants. Of America’s ecosystems, 41% “are at risk of collapse.”

The main cause, say the authors, is “land conversion,” otherwise known as habitat destruction, describing it as “a major contributor to the alarming numbers of species at risk.” This should not surprise anyone. Animals need homes, places to find food and migratory pathways. When we damage land we damage all of that, and many things die. The gradually warming atmosphere certainly doesn’t help, but it’s nothing compared to the direct effects of bulldozer and chainsaws. Species don’t just mysteriously disappear. We disappear them, a few square acres or kilometers at a time, and the pace is increasing. NatureServe’s CEO, Dr. Sean Obrien, describes his own organization’s report as “terrifying.”

This is the context—collapsing ecosystems, vanishing species and a permitting regime not nearly able to keep up—within which the American climate movement is pushing to “streamline” the environmental review process for what they call “green” energy. And it’s not just in the US. This cocktail of collapsing nature, “green” development and the push for streamlined permitting is happening everywhere. It appears to be too late for EU countries. According to Reuters, EU energy ministers agreed in November, 2022 on “emergency regulations that aim to speed up wind and solar permitting while EU officials negotiate wider measures set out in the REPowerEU plan.” As for biodiversity, Europe is worse off than the US, having been at the “land conversion” business much longer.

Last August Bill McKibben tweeted “Lets reform permitting so we can build clean energy projects, not dirty ones,” laying out a peculiar orientation to the land: it’s bad to damage land for fossil fuel infrastructure, but OK, even good, when the damage is for “clean” energy infrastructure. As for the land itself? It disappears, reduced to a factor in a global carbon calculation. And quite a lot of land is involved.

It’s hard to put a firm number to all the acreage poised for development worldwide, given the many variables, but in 2019, Princeton University produced a Net Zero America Report, which analyzes land requirements for the lower 48 states of the US. It predicted a range of .25 to 1.1 million square kilometers of land needed for the US to reach net zero by 2050, depending on the extent of nuclear, biomass, carbon storage, and land restriction. Since that’s a big range, and to avoid quibbling over numbers, let’s split it down the middle and call it 675,000 square kilometers.

To put 675,000 square kilometers in context, America’s biodiversity crisis is currently being driven by land development equal to around 6,100 square kilometers per year. How, we must ask, will ecosystems currently unable to handle 6,100 km2 of land destruction per year cope with 675,000 km2, or 25,000 km2 per year for twenty-seven years, a four-fold acceleration? Already, even without fast-tracking, and at a fraction of proposed buildout, it’s causing ecological carnage. As Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, puts it, “I’m a triage nurse in a desert endangered species emergency room and we’re in the middle of a patient surge.”

This picture paints its own conclusion: fast-tracking renewable infrastructure in America will fast-track our extinction crisis. I say this knowing that one of the goals of this technology is to prevent global warming levels where everything cooks regardless of what we do with the land, and that much of the intention is therefore good intention. But it’s critical we realize that what has brought the biosphere to this miserable state has primarily been, and remains, our taking of land for human use.  Will the patient survive the cure long enough to be saved by it? It’s a legitimate question.

Another problem with permitting reform has to do with science. Though the “clean” energy narrative treats carbon emissions as the sole human cause of climate change, science has known for decades that land destruction also causes climate change, only in different ways having to do with water cycles, soil health and vegetative cooling. It’s why one of the first international scientific climate reports, produced in 1970 by MIT and the Swedish Academy of Sciences, contains an entire section devoted to “The Climatic Effects of Man-Made Surface Change.” Decades of research since have made those effects increasingly clear. When we damage land we damage its ability to cool climate, make clouds, produce rain, moderate temperature extremes and absorb/store moisture against flood and drought. The result is higher temperatures, increased drought and flooding, and greater climatic extremes. Sound familiar?

The fact is our scientific understanding of climate is changing. More and more scientists are dissatisfied with what is increasingly derided as a “CO2-only” view of climate, calling for broader inclusion of water cycles and ecological processes in the analysis. It turns out Earth’s climate is more than a physical machine with a carbon dial, as has been portrayed. Rather, it’s a complex, “biophysically” coupled (living) system, which science is only beginning to understand. Scientifically speaking, we need more study and review, not less.

Finally, has anyone considered what fast-tracking such a massive scale of industrial development would do to environmentalism? How will it continue to make moral sense to itself? The tensions, already deep, will only increase as more and more local people, environmentalists and otherwise, find their landscapes threatened. And when they realize those landscapes also help cool and hydrate their local climates, while buffering drought and flood cycles, what will prevent them from thinking they’ve not been told the whole story? And if fast-tracking disempowers their efforts to protect their lands from destruction, why should they feel anything but betrayed?

Again, I realize the point of this infrastructure is to bring down atmospheric carbon levels. I’m all for that, but when you add the fact that damaging land also damages climate, the formula gets a little muddy. Add in the inevitable 10-to-20-year pulse of emissions required to manufacture, ship and install this infrastructure and the picture gets muddier still.

Only two times have we actually reduced carbon emissions, and those were periods of reduced economic activity, first the Great Recession and then COVID. Do you remember that brief window of ecological clarity that emerged in the early COVID days? Skies brightened. Birds were heard louder. Animals came into our cities. Mountains crisped out of the haze and, according to the UN, “The world registered a record reduction of energy-related CO2 emissions.” Yet the climate establishment was quick to tell us there was nothing to see, just a “blip,” warning that the slowdown was “having a major impact on energy systems around the world, curbing investments and threatening to slow the expansion of key clean energy technologies.”

There are of course better and worse ways to site this technology. Placing solar panels on roof tops is better than clearing forests for solar farms. The problem though, is it’s much more profitable for energy companies to clear land for solar farms than to haul them onto roof tops or stretch them over parking lots, and if we fast-track permitting, we’ll lose the very leverage needed to push the development in that direction.

Republicans, having pushed fast-tracking for over four decades, must be pinching themselves seeing Democrats leading the charge. We can guess at the compromise being worked out. Republicans will offer Democrats their support for renewables fast-tracking in exchange for Democrats allowing a certain amount of petroleum fast-tracking. Fast-tracking on both sides! This will be presented as a win-win for the climate and the economy, a positive example of bipartisanship.

But the woodlands, fields, prairies and deserts, and the creatures confronted with a new wave of “land conversion,” will pay the price. As will the local climates they help maintain.




Teaser photo credit: Power station in Glynn County, Georgia. By Jud McCranie – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Rob Lewis

Rob Lewis is a poet, writer and activist working to give voice to the more-than-human world. His writings have appeared in Resilience, Dark Mountain, Atlanta Review, Counterflow and others, as well as the anthologies Singing the Salmon Home and For the Love of Orcas. He's also author of the poetry/essay collection The Silence of Vanishing Things. Lately, he’s been writing about how the climate isn’t a machine with an engineering fix, but a living system that only can only be healed through restraint and restoration, at

Tags: biodiversity crisis, environmental effects of renewable energy projects, land conversion