Historically, the leaders of environmental groups and mining companies have not spoken with one voice, as we are now on the critical issue of transitioning to clean energy. The urgency that this transition commands will require new ways of thinking and working. As a nation, we are at a crucial moment when we must come together if the United States is to make real progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
We will only tackle climate change by developing new sources of clean energy and significantly expanding electricity transmission, actions that will impact millions of acres of land that are home to a diversity of species and habitats. Opponents of these projects side-step the complex reality of economically viable clean energy alternatives, discount technological advancements that minimize potential impacts to surrounding environments, and often overlook that climate change itself imperils species’ survival.
Take the U.S. transportation sector, the largest domestic source of carbon pollution. Accelerating electrification requires lithium to power electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines and other clean energy technologies.
Currently, the U.S. has one operating lithium mine. Only a handful of lithium projects have advanced development far enough to bring additional domestic production and refining capacity online in time to drive emissions reductions this decade. As a recent International Energy Agency report crystalized, unless we accelerate investment, the demand for EV battery materials may quickly outpace supply, which could stall economic growth and squander our chance to decarbonize the transportation sector.
Building a resilient domestic EV supply chain is not just good for the economy – it is a matter of national security, a view with rare bipartisan support. Without these clean energy projects, the U.S. and its allies will continue to depend on China to source the majority of its battery components.
Yet, investing in a domestic supply chain, including wind and solar and hundreds of thousands of miles of new transmission capacity, will result in unavoidable impacts to the nation’s land and species. Recognizing this fact, and crafting mitigation plans that address these effects through additional land conservation and restoration while integrating climate resilience into our expanding network of protected lands, will allow us to advance both climate and biodiversity goals in a meaningful way.
Fortunately, America has a long tradition of linking conservation funding to development. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), passed in 1964 and enacted a year later, captures a portion of offshore oil and gas revenues to fund land conservation. In other words, resource use pays for resource conservation. The Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act require developers routinely pay to conserve or restore habitats.
Habitat conservation is essential. In addition to providing safe harbor for fish, wildlife and plants, habitat provides us with clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and carbon sinks to help address climate change, as well as opportunities for employment and recreation.
Developers of clean energy projects that are essential to drive the energy transition must do all they can to avoid and minimize impacts to habitat, as well as cultural and historic resources. For those they cannot eliminate, companies must be willing to engage in substantive discussions about how best to serve landscape-level conservation and community needs. Companies, governments and community stakeholders must work together to help species survive by transparently identifying, then implementing, mitigation measures. This will require public, private, tribal and non-profit actors to work together and ensure the push to net-zero is net-positive for the planet.
Upgrades to the Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which impacted federal, state and local protected areas, proved this work is possible. The approval for construction provided significant funding to acquire land that now serves as a buffer to the Appalachian Trail and other critical wildlife and recreational corridors.
By replicating this successful model, the U.S. can lead a new chapter in sustainable innovation, growing and working with nature along the way, ensuring we reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the scale and urgency required while protecting vital lands that will help species survive.
The Inflation Reduction Act showed other nations still follow the United States’ example on environmental stewardship and ingenuity. As the United States leads this global energy transition, we can deliver valuable new sources of clean energy while protecting priceless natural, cultural and historic resources. Clean energy investment can fund conservation. As new heat records are set every day, America must accelerate its efforts to win two critical environmental battles at the same time – transitioning to clean energy and protecting biodiversity. Instead of pitting clean energy and species conservation against each other, we need solutions that balance both.