Exploring Environmental NGO’s Views of Renewable Energy Projects


Map by TSW of approved projects on federal lands. Note that they are permitted not operational. The link is below.

One of our many Anonymous friends asked the “how are environmental NGO’s dealing with solar and wind for federal lands?” Do they all agree?”

I’ve been collecting stories on this topic. I’m suspecting that the devil, as always lies in the details.. whether they agree with an individual project or not, not the general concept. Because in this case, at least to some groups, corporations will industrialize the landscape doing good things (providing low carbon energy) instead of bad things (providing higher carbon energy), so that’s conceptually good.  Many groups use legal means to slow down or stop projects as a policy tool. It will be interesting to see if they can or do retool their policy levers to speed up favored projects.

Here’s  some ideas that don’t seem particularly speedy  from TWS with a cool map of existing infrastructure (see above):

Large renewable energy projects can disrupt wildlife habitat and harm wildlands if they’re not built in the right places. Since the early stages of renewable energy planning, we have learned important lessons about energy development that occurs at a large scale.

It’s encouraging to see an increase in renewable energy. The BLM has made great strides in building a responsible renewables program from scratch. Unfortunately, not all of the projects on this map are examples of this ‘smart from the start’ approach to developing energy on public lands. Mapping the BLM-approved projects does not mean that The Wilderness Society supports all of them. We simply hope to give readers a look at how much renewable energy has grown on public lands.

And here is how TWS wants BLM to do it:


  1. Find appropriate locations and ensure public input

    Identify pre-screened, lower-impact zones for development and incentivize projects within them—using a process that prioritizes comprehensive tribal consultation and input from all stakeholders, especially local and traditionally underrepresented communities and Black, Indigenous and People of Color.

  2. Protect irreplaceable wildlands

    Avoid development in areas with important wildlife habitat, wildlands and cultural resources, and protect those areas.

  3. Offset impacts

    Offset impacts that can’t be avoided with investments in habitat restoration and protection.


We might ask “but how will BLM know what’s an “important” wildland versus a “run of the mill” wildland?  What if it’s important to Juan, Bill and Letitia, but not to Shaundra, Eben and Porfirio?  Will neighbors’ concerns matter more than those of others, or those of local elected officials? Is this another case where “the land is owned by everyone in the country so each person’s view should count equally?”

Here’s a Bobby McGill piece on ESA and the lesser prairie chicken (this is a private land issue but there is still some tension between environmental concerns and development; and the ESA provides a legal nexus for the feds to regulate private land).

A Biden administration proposal to list the lesser prairie-chicken as endangered in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico could stymie oil and gas development in the largest U.S. petroleum basin, environmental attorneys say.

And one warns it could devastate another energy source—wind power.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the proposal to grant Endangered Species Act protection for the imperiled lesser prairie-chicken by listing it as endangered in the Permian Basin and threatened in a region centered on southwestern Kansas.

The May proposal is “at cross purposes with the Biden administration’s climate goals” to develop more renewable sources, said Brooke Marcus Wahlberg, a partner at Nossaman LLP in Austin.

An ESA listing for the lesser prairie-chicken could be devastating for the wind industry because the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a possible mile-wide zone around each wind turbine within which the agency would assume the bird could no longer live, Wahlberg said.

Within that zone, wind developers would be held liable for “take,” a legal term for killing or harassing an imperiled species, Wahlberg said.

Escalating Costs

Developers can take steps to avoid take, or obtain a Fish and Wildlife Service permit to take an endangered species, as long as they employ mitigation measures that protect the animals.

If the service finds that wind developers are eroding the prairie-chicken’s habitat, they could participate in “existing conservation programs,” or meet with agency officials to discuss other options, Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Clay Nichols said, speaking through an agency spokesperson.

The Texas Panhandle on the edge of the Permian Basin is one of the country’s most productive regions for wind energy. Though the basin itself isn’t a hub for wind development, wind development is occurring close to the New Mexico-Texas border.

But avoiding or mitigating take comes at a high cost for developers.

“You end up having significant acreage that is now unusable,” Wahlberg said. “You’re in this place where the service is saying your take is reaching out to these lengths, or you’re getting a permit where your impacts estimates are so high your mitigation costs are just outrageous.”


But private conservation efforts have done little to halt the prairie-chicken’s decline, and ESA protections will help to save it while allowing oil drilling to continue, said Jason Rylander, senor ESA counsel for Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group.

“There is no question in my mind it needs full protection of the Endangered Species Act,” Rylander said. “I think the important thing to remember is the ESA is a flexible tool that protects species and habitat but rarely stops development.”

For an example of authorized take (in this case of golden eagles) for wind turbines check out this USFWS site:

6 thoughts on “Exploring Environmental NGO’s Views of Renewable Energy Projects”

  1. Like Sharon, many have seen varied perspectives on benefit and cost of renewables. I disagree with her characterization of doing good thing versus a bad thing, simply because their be both benefit and cost from either fossil fuels or renewables.

    Anyway, it’s worth following the economic/financial press attention to these issues, and here’s a good example of that:

    The Financial Times June 7, 2021


    Copper boom: how clean energy is driving a commodities supercycle
    Demand is set to explode with the rise in renewables technology, but years of under-investment threaten to leave supply short

    By Neil Hume and Henry Sanderson in London

    Kamoa-Kakula in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a rare commodity in the modern resources industry: a high-grade copper mine that one day could produce enough metal to satisfy more than 5 per cent of China’s annual demand.

    Surrounded by small villages, the mine employs around 7,000 workers and has its own road for trucks to carry rock to a nearby smelter. The company is also upgrading a 40-year-old hydropower station on the Congo River to provide electricity to run the mine.

    The first phase of the $2bn project began operating in May, more than four years after the last big copper mine of similar scale, MMG’s Las Bambas, in Peru, came online. Despite these examples, years of belt tightening mean the pipeline of new copper projects is running dangerously thin just as demand for the metal — used in everything from wind turbines to electric vehicles — is set to soar.

    Governments around the world are launching huge stimulus programmes focused on job creation and environmental stability.

    The coming together of such demand and potential supply shortages has many people on Wall Street, and in the City of London, hailing the arrival of a commodities supercycle and asking if copper is set to become the new oil, a strategically important raw material.

    “We see potential for a multi-decade commodity cycle ahead driven by decarbonisation of the global economy and shift to cleaner energy,” says Tal Lomnitzer, a senior fund manager at Janus Henderson. “It has more legs to it than the China boom of the early 2000s.”

    Commodities have enjoyed a dizzying run over the past year, initially on the back of strong demand from China, and more recently other big economies. Supply disruptions have provided further impetus. Copper, iron ore, the key ingredient needed to make steel, palladium and timber all hit record highs in May, while agricultural commodities including grains, oilseeds, sugar and dairy have also jumped.

    While there is no agreed definition of a supercycle, it has been commonly used to describe a period where commodity prices rise above their long-term trend for between 10 and 35 years. These cycles are typically triggered by a structural boost to demand that is large enough to register globally and to which supply is slow to respond, according to Capital Economics.

    There have been just four sustained periods of above-trend commodity prices over the past 120 years. The first came with the emergence of the US as an economic powerhouse in the 1880s and the last with China’s rapid industrialisation in the early 2000s.

    “Most people in commodities markets thought we were never going to see another Chinese urbanisation story. But it is now pretty clear that the green capital expenditure story is going to be bigger and multiples bigger because it is global”, says Ben Cleary, a partner at Tribeca Investment Partners, a boutique fund management group based in Australia.

    “I also don’t think the China green capex numbers are fully appreciated,” he adds, “it’s $2tn a year for 40 years to get to net zero carbon. The numbers are mind blowing.”

    The green effect

    It is not a universal sentiment. Many economists believe the current boom in commodity prices is cyclical rather than structural and can be explained by strong Chinese demand, a post-pandemic economic recovery in Europe and the US overlaid with supply chain disruptions. They expect the rally to peter out as China — still the world’s biggest buyer of commodities — tightens credit.

    Indeed some raw materials have already fallen in price. Iron ore is down 10 per cent from its recent record high of $233 a tonne in May as Beijing has moved to cool runaway prices.

    “Commodity prices have rallied because demand is so strong,” says Ric Deverell, chief economist at Macquarie in Sydney. “But in large parts that is a cyclical rebound from a very large recession. And, of course, it has been turbocharged by stimulus.”

    Sceptics are also quick to point out that not all commodities are in short supply. A case in point is oil, where Opec and its allies have yet to fully unwind the huge production cuts enacted in April 2020.

    “When we are talking about a supercycle, we are talking about something bigger and that has to involve the major commodities, such as oil and iron ore,” says Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics. “And, for those commodities, the demand outlook is weaker.”

    However, when it comes to copper and other metals linked to investment in green technology, such as cobalt and nickel, even sceptics accept the outlook is bright, because supply is constrained and demand is set to accelerate.

    “In terms of trying to decarbonise the world, the only possible way we can do that is through copper. There’s really nothing else that can conduct electricity as well,” says Jeff Currie, head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs and one of the strongest proponents of the idea that we are in a new supercycle.

    “That’s why we say it is as strategically important as oil, because if you want to decarbonise transport and industrial fuels through electricity, you are going to need copper,” he adds, “and a lot of it.”

    An electric vehicle contains five times more copper (60-83kg) than a car fitted with an internal combustion engine, according to Goldman, while a 3-megawatt wind turbine uses up to 4.7 tonnes of the metal.

    Goldman is not alone in forecasting strong demand growth. To achieve net zero emissions by 2050, the International Energy Agency says the total market size of critical minerals such as copper, cobalt, manganese and various rare earth metals will have to grow almost sevenfold between 2020 and 2030.

    “Every supercycle in commodities has been tied to redistribution policies,” says Currie. “What’s the redistribution story this time around? Tackling income inequality. And it is pretty clear we are going to tackle it the same way Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s, through green capex, just like the Hoover Dam.”

    Currie points to US President Joe Biden’s jobs plan and Europe’s Green New Deal as evidence for that view. But just as demand is expected to take off, the copper market is arguably the closest it has ever been to peak supply, due to big miners curtailing investment in new projects. That trend started around seven years ago, after a brutal downturn in commodity markets pushed many miners with bloated balance sheets and unsustainable dividend policies close to financial ruin.

    “Mining companies are likely to continue to prioritise capital returns and balance sheet strength over investment in long-lead-time, capital-intensive growth projects,” says Christopher LaFemina, an analyst at Jefferies. “The economics of these projects are moving targets that are in many ways beyond the control of the mining companies.”

    Fall off in capital spending

    Robert Friedland started searching for copper in the DRC more than a quarter of a century ago. Many people thought he was crazy. At the time the country was in the midst of a brutal war.

    “Our team of geologists worked 15 years in the bush to find this deposit against a great deal of scepticism,” Friedland says of the Kamoa project, a joint venture involving his company Ivanhoe Mines, China’s Zijin Mining and the government of the DRC. “It is unquestionably the largest discovery in the history of the African copper belt.”

    While the copper market is relatively well supplied for the next couple of years, thanks to developments such as Kamoa and Quellaveco — the $5bn Peruvian mine Anglo American expects to bring online in 2022 — beyond that the pipeline of new projects looks thin.

    “People look at the supply numbers, but they don’t filter in how difficult it is to get that supply,” says Farid Dadashev, co-head of European metals and mining at RBC Capital Markets. “The last time the copper price was high in 2011 and 2012 there were a couple of new projects in the market but they were all delayed and the capital expenditure was extremely high.”

    After blowing billions of dollars in the last commodity boom on overpriced deals and over ambitious projects, the mining industry has dramatically scaled back spending and focused on returning cash to shareholders, who have now become used to receiving fat dividends from the sector.

    “All the major producers have been returning capital for the best part of six or seven years with a gun to their head from shareholders who don’t trust their ability to reinvest profits into growth,” says Cleary from Tribeca Investments.

    As a result, global mining and smelting capital expenditure, which peaked at $220bn in 2012, only reached half that level last year, according to Wood Mackenzie. Exploration spending has also dropped sharply from $35.7bn in 2012 to just over $10bn last year, according to Tribeca.

    In spite of rising commodity prices — copper has almost doubled in the past year, recently hitting a record above $10,500 a tonne, although it has since slipped almost 5 per cent — miners are either unwilling or unable to sign off on new copper projects.

    Unless that changes, Goldman sees an annual supply shortfall of 8.2m tonnes emerging by 2030. To put that figure in perspective, last year global refined copper production was 23.5m tonnes.

    It is becoming increasingly difficult to find high grade copper projects in safe mining jurisdictions.

    Ivan Glasenberg, the long-serving boss of miner and commodity trader Glencore, told the Financial Times recently that the copper price would need to rise 50 per cent to meet projected demand from the global green revolution. “You will need $15,000 copper to encourage a lot of this more difficult investment,” he said. “People are not going to go to those more difficult parts of the world unless they are certain.”

    It is not just in the more difficult parts of the world where there are problems. Proposed tax changes in Chile and Peru — gripped by the most divisive presidential election in recent history — could make it very difficult for foreign miners to invest in the world’s two biggest copper producing nations.

    “Fiscal uncertainty is likely to deter investment and impact future supply,” says Liam Fitzpatrick, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, who has identified $50bn of projects in Chile, Peru and Zambia that are up for approval over the next decade but could be delayed.

    Ageing mines and declining ore grades present other challenges for the mining industry. These are particularly pronounced in Chile, where state-owned Codelco — the world’s biggest copper miner — needs to spend $35bn between now and 2030 to keep annual output steady at 1.6m to 1.7m tonnes.

    It can take up to 10 years to develop a new copper project, assuming all the approvals are in place. So even if the mining industry, swayed by higher prices, decides to open the purse strings now, it may already be too late to prevent large supply deficits from opening up later in the decade.

    “If we knew how hard it was going to be to find a major copper system and bring it into production with hydroelectricity in the Congo,” says Friedland, “I can assure you we would have given up.

    “That’s the problem with mineral exploration,” he adds, “very few efforts come to fruition”.

    Aluminium as an alternative

    Not everyone is convinced that copper is set for a supercycle. Julian Kettle, vice-chair of metals and mining at Wood Mackenzie, says higher copper prices will incentivise substitution towards aluminium, which has lower conductivity than copper, but is much lighter.

    In May, London-listed Tirupati Graphite said it had developed a graphene-aluminium composite material that it said had conductivity similar to copper. The company is working with Rolls-Royce on using it to replace copper in thermal, power and propulsion systems, according to a person familiar with the company.

    During the last China-driven commodity supercycle, Kettle estimates the copper market lost 2 per cent, or between 400,000 and 500,000 tonnes per year, of demand due to aluminium substitution when prices rose above $6,000 a tonne.

    “If raw materials prices are rising quickly, you look at opportunities for thrift,” he says. “It’s back to the law of physics: if the supplies aren’t there, then you cannot consume. The notion the price will go to fanciful numbers on a sustainable basis . . . that [scenario] tells the market you can’t deliver supplies and consumers will look elsewhere.”

    But even Kettle concedes that the outlook for the copper market is relatively bullish. It needs to double in size by 2040 if the world is to meet the targets set out in the Paris climate agreement. “If there is one commodity where you will see supercycle characteristics it is copper. But the fundamental drivers aren’t there just yet,” he adds.

    Back in the DRC, Ivanhoe Mines has begun searching for another big copper discovery on a parcel of land close to Kamoa-Kakula. And this time the work of its geologists is drawing attention rather than scepticism from big western miners, as well as sovereign wealth funds and international financial institutions, according to Friedland.

    “Kamoa wasn’t just the discovery of a mine,” he says. “It was the discovery of a whole new mineral province.”

  2. “But avoiding or mitigating take comes at a high cost for developers.”
    Exactly. An example of how ESA can force us to internalize the real costs of development. Yes, we should pay more for things that cause more environmental damage. And legal protections for at-risk species should influence our planning so that facilities are sited in areas at least overall cost to society.

    • Jon, I think that’s one criterion “least overall cost to society”; then there’s whether you need the installation at all (e.g. nuke advocates), then there’s least environmental damage, then there’s avoiding underserved communities, then there’s… it sounds like people would not agree about many of these things..it all sounds very familiar. “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run”.. we all agree about that, right?

  3. “We might ask “but how will BLM know what’s an “important” wildland versus a “run of the mill” wildland?” They will (hopefully) use their public land management planning process to identify the management emphasis for these different areas (yes, with the usual attendant problems of how to weigh everyone’s input, within the constraints of sustaining biodiversity – such as avoiding listed species).


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