The Sierra Club and Power Shortages


DATE: February 13, 2001

BACKGROUND: The Sierra Club, in a current press release, claims it is a myth that environmentalists caused California's power shortage and says that they have not blocked or delayed the construction of new power plants in the last 10 years. They attribute California's power problems to deregulation and bad planning by utilities.

TEN SECOND RESPONSE: As we speak, one of Sierra Club's allies, the Environmental Defense Center, is moving to block construction of a power plant near San Luis Obispo. Unsound environmental policy is at the very root of California's problems.

THIRTY SECOND RESPONSE: Those who have fostered extreme environmental regulations are contributing to California's energy problems. Environmental groups have opposed nearly all energy development. Unsound regulation and irrational environmental activism will cause energy problems in other parts of the country in coming years, resulting in economic hardship and loss of jobs, unless we turn to sound, commonsense ways to protect the environment, as well as our economy.

DISCUSSION: California did very little to deregulate the electricity industry. The chief component of California's "deregulation" was to put a cap on retail electricity prices - a measure that hardly encourages energy conservation. However, at the urging of a variety of extreme environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the state led the nation in erecting environmental regulatory barriers to the construction of power plants and transmission lines. The result has been that the process of permitting and building a power plant in California takes ten years, as opposed to two to three years in many states, such as Texas, from which California is now buying power. Further complicating matters is that there is a high likelihood that permits will be denied at any time during the eight year permitting process. Also, at any time during the two-year construction process, lawsuits and protests are likely to halt work. As a result, industry officials say they can do very little planning and most projects are killed before reaching the permitting stage.

This is not to say that the NIMBY (not in my back yard) principle has not also been at work in areas where aesthetic concerns have been put ahead of necessary solutions to problems. For example, in Silicon Valley, Cisco Systems, manufacturer of equipment for energy-devouring Internet server farms, is blocking construction of the Calpine power plant because it would intrude on the view from their planned new headquarters.

There are, however, many more ways in which environmentalists have contributed to California's and the nation's spreading energy crisis. Tougher emissions standards, particularly for NOX, are causing many of California's power plants to be shut down for extended periods to install new emissions controls. Nationwide, power generators are switching to natural gas to meet ever-tougher emissions standards - even as environmental groups such as Sierra Club block drilling for natural gas.

SPECIAL NOTE: Bowing to pressure from environmental groups, the last week in January the California Air Resources Board voted to require automakers to sell specific numbers of zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) beginning in 2003. The move triggers similar legislation in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont. ZEVs run on - you guessed it- electricity.


by Tom Randall, Director
John P. McGovern, MD Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs
The National Center for Public Policy Research

Contact the author at: 773-857-5086 or
The National Center for Public Policy Research
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