Dam the Salmon
In the Northwest, environmentalists want to
have it both ways.
By Shikha Dalmia May 30, 2007 Wall Street Journal
Al Gore has been hectoring Americans to pare back their
lifestyles to fight global warming. But if Mr. Gore wants us
to rethink our priorities in the face of this mother of all
environmental threats, surely he has convinced his fellow
greens to rethink theirs, right?
Wrong. If their opposition to the Klamath hydroelectric
dams in the Pacific Northwest is any indication, the greens,
it appears, are just as unwilling to sacrifice their pet
causes as a Texas rancher is to sacrifice his pickup truck. If
anything, the radicalization of the environmental movement is
the bigger obstacle to addressing global warming than the
allegedly gluttonous American way of life.
Once regarded as the symbol of national greatness,
hydroelectric dams have now fallen into disrepute for many
legitimate reasons. They are enormously expensive undertakings
that would never have taken off but for hefty government
subsidies. Worse, they typically involve changing the natural
course of rivers, causing painful disruptions for towns and
But tearing down the Klamath dams, the last of which was
completed in 1962, will do more harm than good at this stage.
These dams provide cheap, renewable energy to 70,000 homes in
Oregon and California. Replacing this energy with natural
gas--the cleanest fossil-fuel source--would still pump 473,000
tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every
year. This is roughly equal to the annual emissions of 102,000
Given this alternative, one would think that
environmentalists would form a human shield around the dams to
protect them. Instead, they have been fighting tooth-and-nail
to tear them down because the dams stand in the way of
migrating salmon. Environmentalists don't even let many
states, including California, count hydro as renewable.
They have rejected all attempts by PacifiCorp, the company
that owns the dams, to take mitigation steps such as
installing $350 million fish ladders to create a salmon
pathway. Klamath Riverkeeper, a group that is part of an
environmental alliance headed by Robert Kennedy Jr., has sued
a fish hatchery that the California Department of Fish and
Wildlife runs--and PacifiCorp is required to fund--on grounds
that it releases too many algae and toxic discharges. The
hatchery produces at least 25% of the chinook salmon catch
every year. Closing it will cause fish populations to drop
further, making the demolition of the dams even more likely.
But the end of the Klamath won't mean the end of the dam
saga--it is the big prize that environmentalists are coveting
to take their antidam crusade to the next level. "This would
represent the largest and most ambitious dam removal project
in the country, if not the world," exults Steve Rothert of
American Rivers. The other dams on the hit list include the
O'Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley that
services San Francisco, Elwha River dam in Washington and the
Matilija Dam in Southern California.
Large hydro dams supply about 20% of California's power
(and 10% of America's). If they are destroyed, California
won't just have to find some other way to fulfill its energy
needs. It will have to do so while reducing its carbon
footprint to meet the ambitious CO2 emission-reduction targets
that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has set. Mr. Schwarzenegger
has committed the Golden State to cutting greenhouse gas
emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050--a more stringent
requirement than even in the Kyoto Protocol.
The effect this might have on California's erratic and
overpriced energy supply has businesses running scared. Mike
Naumes, owner of Naumes Inc., a fruit packing and processing
business, last year moved his juice concentrate plant from
Marysville, Calif., to Washington state and cut his energy
bill in half. With hydropower under attack, he is considering
shrinking his farming operations in the Golden State as well.
"We can't pay exorbitant energy prices and stay competitive
with overseas businesses," he says.
Bruce Hamilton, Sierra Club's deputy executive director and
a longtime proponent of such a mandate, refuses to even
acknowledge that there is any conflict in closing hydro dams
while fighting global warming. All California needs to do to
square these twin objectives, he maintains, is become more
energy efficient while embracing alternative fuels. "We don't
need to accept a Faustian bargain with hydropower to cut
emissions," he says.
This is easier done in the fantasy world of greens than in
the real world. If cost-effective technologies to boost energy
efficiency actually existed, industry would adopt them
automatically, global warming or not.
As for alternative fuels, they are still far from
economically viable. Gilbert Metcalf, an economist at Tufts
University, has calculated that wind energy costs 6.64 cents
per kWh and biomass 5.95 kWh--compared to 4.37 cents for clean
coal. Robert Bradley Jr., president of the Institute for
Energy Research, puts these costs even higher. "Although
technological advances have lowered alternative fuel prices in
recent years, these fuels still by and large cost twice as
much as conventional fossil fuels," he says.
But suppose these differentials disappeared. Would the
Sierra Club and its eco-warriors actually embrace the fuels
that Mr. Hamilton advocates? Not if their track record is any
indication. Indeed, environmental groups have a history of
opposing just about every energy source.
Their opposition to nuclear energy is well known. Wind
power? Two years ago the Center for Biological Diversity sued
California's Altamont Pass Wind Farm for obstructing and
shredding migrating birds. ("Cuisinarts of the sky" is what
many greens call wind farms.) Solar? Worldwatch Institute's
Christopher Flavin has been decidedly lukewarm about solar
farms because they involve placing acres of mirrors in
pristine desert habitat. The Sierra Club and Wilderness
Society once testified before Congress to keep California's
Mojave Desert--one of the prime solar sites in the
country--off limits to all development. Geothermal energy?
They are unlikely to get enviro blessings, because some of the
best sites are located on protected federal lands.
Greens, it seems, always manage to find a problem for every
environmental solution--and there is deep reason for this.
Since its inception, the American environmental movement has
been torn between "conservationists" seeking to protect nature
for man--and "preservationists" seeking to protect nature for
its own sake. Although early environmental thinkers such as
Aldo Leopold and John Muir were sympathetic to both themes,
Leopold was more in the first camp and Muir in the second.
Leopold regarded wilderness as a form of land use; he
certainly wanted to limit the development of wild areas--but
to "enlarge the range of individual experience." Muir, on the
other hand, saw wilderness as sacred territory worthy of
protection regardless of human needs.
With the arrival on the scene of Deep Ecologists from
Europe in the 1980s, Muir's mystical preservationist side won
the moral high ground. The emphasis of Deep Ecology on radical
species equality made talk about solving environmental
problems for human ends illicit within the American
environmental community. Instead, Arne Naess, the revered
founder of Deep Ecology, explicitly identified human beings as
the big environmental problem. "The flourishing of nonhuman
life requires a decrease in human population," his eight-point
platform to save Mother Earth serenely declared.
This ideological turn, notes Ramachandra Guha, a
left-leaning Indian commentator and incisive critic of Deep
Ecology, has made American environmentalism irrelevant at best
and dangerous at worst for the Third World, where addressing
environmental issues such as soil erosion, water pollution and
deforestation still remains squarely about serving human
needs. By turning wilderness preservation into a moral
absolute--as opposed to simply another form of land use--Deep
Ecology has justified wresting crucial resources out of the
hands of India's agrarian and tribal populations. "Specious
nonsense about equal rights of all species cannot hide the
plain fact that green imperialists . . . are dangerous," Mr.
Guha has written.
Besides hurting the Third World, such radicalism had made
the environmental movement incapable of responding to its own
self-proclaimed challenges. Since nature can't speak for
itself, the admonition to protect nature for nature's sake
offers not a guide to action, but an invitation to inaction.
That's because a non-anthropocentric view that treats nature
as non-hierarchical collapses into incoherence when it becomes
necessary to calculate trade-offs or set priorities between
competing environmental goals.
Thus, even in the face of a supposedly calamitous threat
like global warming, environmentalists can't bring themselves
to embrace any sacrifice--of salmons or birds or desert or
protected wilderness. Its strategy comes down to pure
obstructionism--on full display in the Klamath dam
Yet, if environmentalists themselves are unwilling to give
up anything for global warming, how can they expect sacrifices
from others? If Al Gore wants to do something, he should first
move out of his 6,000 square-foot Nashville mansion and then
make a movie titled: "Damn the salmon."
Ms. Dalmia is a senior analyst with Reason Foundation.