Why Greens Are to Blame for Blackouts
By David Holcberg (Akron Beacon Journal, Jan. 22, 2001; Des Moines Register, Jan. 24, 2001)
On Jan. 17 California power officials ordered utilities to cut off electricity to half a million people in San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, and Silicon Valley. State regulators imposed rolling blackouts on northern California when they realized that energy supply was dangerously low and about to bring down power grids all over the state. Hospitals, schools, and day-care centers lost power for hours. Thousands of businesses were paralyzed, including banks, hotels, stores, and supermarkets. Even police and fire services suffered power outages.
So far, the media has blamed free markets and "deregulation" as the cause for the power shortages, even though California's energy market is by no measure free and was not "deregulated" in 1996, but actually "reregulated," with one set of regulations substituted for another. While reregulation was certainly responsible for California's energy crisis, another important cause has gone unnoticed and has not been given proper attention: environmentalist activism.
Green activists have worked for decades to stop the construction of major power plants in California--and have succeeded. As a result, California generates less power per resident than any other state, and "imports" about one quarter of the energy it consumes. Since 1985 only minor power plants have been built in California, adding only 6,000 megawatts to the state's supply--hardly enough to meet an increased demand for 10,000 megawatts. If plants capable of generating an additional 4,000 megawatts had been built in the last decade, there would be no energy crisis today. By preventing entrepreneurs from building power plants, environmentalists choked the supply of power and set the stage for crises like the current one.
The origins of today's energy crisis can be traced back to the 1970s, a quarter of a century before any "deregulation" took place, when environmental groups committed to stop the construction of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Lawsuits, demonstrations, and media campaigns succeeded in delaying the plant's construction for ten years. A "study" released by the Environmental Impacts Analysis was used to force unnecessary project changes on the original plant's plans, like the inclusion of an expensive but superfluous mechanism to cool water dumped into the Pacific Ocean--presumably so fish wouldn't "feel the heat." Environmentalists justified the changes by claiming that nuclear power is inherently unsafe. But the fact is that hundreds of nuclear plants have been safely producing electricity around the Western world, without the burden of having had environmentalist changes to their original plans. A spokesman for the Government Accountability Project, another environmentalist organization, explained their agenda: "We don't want safe nuclear power plants. We want no nuclear power plants."
Environmentalists, however, did not succeed in preventing Diablo Canyon's completion in 1985, though they managed to multiply building costs twelve-fold, from $500 million to $6 billion.
Similar problems plagued San Onofre, built to supply Southern California with energy. The nuclear plant was completed in 1984, and also had its cost driven up by environmentalist litigation, from $1.3 billion to $4.3 billion. Businessmen quickly realized that such high and unpredictable costs made construction of nuclear power plants financially impractical, and no entrepreneur has dared build another nuclear plant in California or anywhere else in America since.
Environmentalist groups have also prevented coal and oil power plants from being built by lobbying legislators to enact such draconian regulations and unreasonable air-quality standards that even some existing plants were forced to shut down.
A telling illustration of the scope of the environmentalist impact on power generation is the Honey Lake plant, in the Sierras, which used timber chips and forest leftovers as fuel to make electricity. The plant was forced to close down because of a mandated moratorium on forest logging, prompted by a lawsuit from Earth Island Institute, a San Francisco-based environmental group. Another dozen similar plants scattered around the Sierras will probably share the same fate, and the 300,000 homes they serve will become the next victims of environmentalist litigation.
At the EPA, environmentalists have worked to institute a torturous process to slow down and deny approval to the construction of power plants. Daniel Nix, deputy director at the California Energy Commission, observed, "Of the last five certificates we awarded [for power plant construction], four were challenged by the Environmental Protection Agency."
Environmentalists have done everything to stop the construction of new power plants, from nuclear to "environmentally friendly" timber chip plants. What could be their motives for limiting energy supply?
Their leaders tell us that their purpose is to protect man. Yet, they are well aware that man needs energy and technology to sustain modern industrial civilization. They also know progress cannot happen without increasing energy supply. The recent blackouts are evidence that their goal is to protect fish, trees, water, and air at the expense of man.
The blackouts are an early warning sign of the dangers to human life coming from environmentalist activism. Californians are paying dearly for the environmentalists' determination to slow down the engines of the world and halt human progress. But how much more of the Green agenda are Americans willing to put up with, and for how long? The choice we face is clear-cut: Greens, blackouts, and stagnation--or modern industry, new power plants, and progress. Take your pick.
David Holcberg, a former civil engineer, is a writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.