Ted Nordhaus: What Are Environmental Protections Protecting?

Historian T.J. Jackson Lears once said, “All history is the history of unintended consequences.” This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Ted Nordhaus, the Founder and Executive Director of The Breakthrough Institute, about when laws designed to protect the environment are misused in order to block efforts that would combat climate change. We look at some recent examples where wealthier communities have exploited environmental regulatory loopholes, stymieing progress toward renewable energy and thwarting the protection of vulnerable populations.

Narrator 0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Ted Nordhaus  (TN) 0:28  You know, the kind old narrative is that no, this is sort of this tool, we have to stop these corporate bad guys from doing terrible things to the environment. But it’s actually quite the opposite. Now it’s being used by powerful interests, to stop public institutions and government from building infrastructure that we need to protect the environment and do a lot of other things that are just very, very clearly in the public interest.

Narrator 0:56  Historian T.J. Jackson Lears once said, “All history is the history of unintended consequences.” This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Ted Nordhaus, the Founder and Executive Director of The Breakthrough Institute, about when laws designed to protect the environment are misused in order to block efforts that would combat climate change. We look at some recent examples where wealthier communities have exploited environmental regulatory loopholes, stymieing progress toward renewable energy and thwarting the protection of vulnerable populations.

Alex Wise (AW) 1:55  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by the Founder and Executive Director of The Breakthrough Institute, Ted Nordhaus. Ted, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

TN  2:04  Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

AW  2:07  So yes, we spoke around five years ago, it’s good to check back in with you, you have a piece, an op ed in the Wall Street Journal that I found very thought provoking that I wanted to discuss with you. It’s entitled for a clean energy future, we need deregulation, give us kind of the executive summary first, and then we’ll dive into the details.

TN  2:27  Yeah, you need to build a to have a clean energy future. I mean, America is still 70 plus percent dependent on fossil fuels, you hear a lot about the sort of renewable energy clean energy revolution, we’ve been talking about it for a long time, we’ve made some progress. But still, 70% plus of our total energy consumption is still fossil fuel base. So if you want to really do something about that, you want to really quickly cut emissions, you’ve got to build a whole lot of stuff really fast. And it’s not just going to be solar panels on people’s roofs, and even that, in a lot of places, is really slow and hard to do. Because of various permitting and approval issues, things like that. We’ve gotten a little bit better at it. But you know, as soon as you start talking about even building like a big solar or wind facility, out in the California desert, or wherever you’re going to build it. I mean, it can take, you know, a decade plus to get that permitted and built. And and that’s just a small number of things we’ve built so far, when you look at the scale of renewable energy, nuclear energy, electric vehicle, charging systems, all of the things that it would take to really deeply cut emissions in this country. It’s just a huge infrastructure project, we have to build the entire infrastructure from scratch with a clean energy economy. And there’s just no reason to think, given the sort of current thicket of permitting environmental review, all the things that we put in place decades ago to sort of try to stop governments and companies from building things that environmentalists didn’t like. But all of those things are now just huge obstacles to building all the things that pretty much everyone agrees we need to build if we’re going to get off of fossil fuels.

AW  4:21  And why don’t you give some examples you mentioned the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant being shut down.

TN  4:29  You know, like California, Diablo Canyon. We’re closing basically over a very obscure state law to protect sort of fish hatch and fish eggs and very fault small fish from the cooling intakes because it takes its water in from the ocean. You know, basically the state said, if you’re going to keep the plant open, you need to build like a $4 billion cooling tower to just sort of take cooling water and not take it out of the ocean, you know, no strong environmental case for this, you know, the impacts on fisheries are extremely marginal. Meanwhile, it’s the largest source of clean energy in the state. And we’re, we’re now going to close it, because the state’s environmental laws and its environmental community just refused to kind of consider reasonable steps that would have allowed for the plant to stay continue to operate and to mitigate some of again, these fairly marginal impacts on fisheries that it was having. In, you know, the Nevada desert multiple projects that have been cancelled, or just massively delayed because of environmental review under the National Environmental Protection Act, or under the Endangered Species Act. You know, you go to the east coast where all of the plans for a big build out of renewable energy in the United States count on just a huge build out of offshore wind along the Atlantic seaboard. We’ve been trying to build offshore wind along the Atlantic seaboard for two decades now. In 2005, I wrote an op ed in support of building the cape wind project, which Bobby Kennedy Jr, who we now all known as a anti Vaxxer. But he was then a lead attorney with the National Resources Defense Council have led the campaign against saying, basically, Oh, it’ll affect fisheries, it won’t be. This is not the right place to build a big offshore wind farm. It also happened to be something that would have been visible from the family’s Hyannis Port compound. That was 2005. They went on for another decade trying to build that that project and finally cancelled it. I think the first offshore wind project in the United States just came online. Also somewhere up near I think that area Block Island somewhere like that. Yeah, it took them like 15 years to get that permitted and built.

AW  7:15  For a population that was like under 50,000 year round.

TN  7:20  Yeah. I mean, this is not a recipe for an energy transition. This is just an honor. This is a recipe for gridlock.

AW  7:27  So what’s the recipe? We put these environmental regulations in place to stop fossil fuel companies from destroying the environment? That seemed pretty reasonable. But now you’re you’re saying that the fossil fuel build out is kind of peaked. And now, environmentalists are kind of shooting themselves in their own foot?

TN  7:47  Yeah, I mean, actually, mostly, we didn’t put it in place to stop fossil fuels, fossil fuels were exempted from NEPA.

AW 7:55  And real quickly, why don’t you explain for our listeners, what NEPA is…

TN  8:00  Yeah, so NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act. And this is basically, for any federal project it Rick, you know, it’s done on public lands or is done with taxpayer dollars, it basically requires the sort of relevant agency, or agencies to conduct an environmental review that looks at every conceivable way, that that it could impact the environment, unless it’s on public land, you don’t need to do a NEPA review, to drill a fracking well, or an oil? Well, I mean, really, this was put in place, you know, mostly, you know, in the 70s. And, you know, like, we’re both in California, if you go and look, you know, like Caltrans, the Big State Transportation Agency in California, you know, they had plans to build like a 620, turn Highway One, which was the little two lane coastal highway, that runs all the way up and down the state into like, a 618 lane freeway north to south San Diego, all the way up to the Oregon border, six lanes. So, you know, look, that was a bad thing. No one would ever propose a project like that today. And that was the kind of thing that inspired the the establishment of NEPA, and the California Environmental Quality Act, you know, back in the 60s and 70s. Today, um, you know, a, no one would try to build something like that, you know, be, you know, these tools are being sort of deployed against, you know, clean energy and other environmental infrastructure that we really need to build. And I think the important thing, you know, if you really kind of go look at the role that these laws play, I mean, these rules and laws are being used to block affordable housing. They’re being used to block high speed rail, they’re being used to block clean energy projects all over the country. And In a lot of cases, they’re on public lands. It’s publicly funded infrastructure. So we’re not even deploying this against sort of private interest trying to despoil the environment. These are anti these are actually at this point anti democratic rules. So publicly elected officials who we all vote, and you may not like, like, or may not like them, but you know, we still have some semblance of a democratic process where we elect officials to go to Congress to, to pass laws and to spend our tax dollars on infrastructure. So we elect them, they go to Congress, they say, We want to go build a high speed rail, or we want to go build, you know, high voltage transmission lines to bring all this clean energy from the California desert to California Cities. You know, they spend the money, they authorize the infrastructure, we go there and send it off to a public agency that is also accountable to democratically elected policymakers to go and actually build this infrastructure. And then it all stops because private interests have been unpowered under the law to basically kind of challenge the democratically established taxpayer funded public goods infrastructure that we’re proposing to build and that and that we’ve decided to build so it’s just endlessly it gets endlessly re litigated after it has gone through a democratic process to decide that these are public goods that are in the public interest and that we want to build that just kind of stop it just it just that’s what it is right now.

(Music Break)  11:43

AW This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Ted Nordhaus. Ted is the founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute. So Ted, we were just talking about how so many of these environmental regulations are being used by people who are not necessarily just protecting the environment. I couldn’t help but think when you’re talking about what’s just happening in Berkeley with Cal Berkeley’s enrollment, and how there’s a real case of nimbyism, why don’t you explain?

TN  13:03  Yeah, so Berkeley, I guess they reduced their enrollment during the pandemic, because I think they just didn’t, you know, people were sort of home that the enrollment dropped. So then they want to kind of take it back up to the levels that it was prior to the pandemic, and they were sued by a bunch of local residents for failing to conduct an environmental review, to look at all of the environmental and socio economic impacts of returning to the prior levels of enrollment. And, and various things about they hadn’t evaluated the impact this would have on homelessness, or on and just the most, you know, anything they could throw at the wall. And so literally a California state judge and join the University of California, Berkeley, from basically extending admission to 1000s of students to attend the, you know, the flagship public university in the state of California, because they had failed to sort of assess all of these kind of crazy impacts that having more students on campus and attending the university would have,

AW  14:16  While we know in reality that like, this is one of the top rated public universities in the country, if anything, it should have as many students as possible if they’re doing a good job of educating people at a good price. Let’s get as many of them educated. That’s kind of the idea, right?

TN  14:30  Absolutely. And, and, you know, these these laws were created in order to try to protect the public interest from sort of various schemes by private interests that would undermine the environment and various sort of public amenities and public goods that we all agree are important, and it’s actually totally reversed and now it is being used by private interests, to undermine and obstruct the provision of public goods like a union At the edge of a state funded university education, you know, this stuff has to change.

AW  15:04  It’s being used sometimes as a tool by those who can afford to hire lawyers and create a lot of paperwork and red tape for sometimes vulnerable populations, whether it be affordable housing or college students even.

TN  15:21  Yeah, I mean, it is a huge driver of inequality and sort of disparate impacts. It has been used for decades now by wealthier communities, to redirect sort of various sorts of answer infrastructure that they don’t like, or they don’t want into poor communities, which don’t have the sort of wherewithal and resources that rich communities do to just endlessly obstruct infrastructure and sort of various projects that, that the rich communities don’t want, you know, if you’re someone as I am, who believes that like, you know, we need government, we need their public goods that only public institutions can provide, you know, effectively and equitably, you should oppose all this stuff, you should you should support, just, you know, we need to burn a bunch of it to the ground, you know, I, I gotten pretty radicalized about it in recent years, as I’ve just wanted to sort of see how impossible it is to kind of build any of the infrastructure, we need to tackle the big environmental challenges that we’re faced. And it’s these environmental rules that most of the kind of mainstream environmental community continues to defend that are our huge obstacles. And, you know, it goes well beyond the it goes to affordable housing, it goes to providing a university education, and, and updating and expanding educational facilities, you know, all over the state of California, all over the country. You know, the kind of nagging old narrative is that no, this is sort of this tool, we have to stop these corporate bad guys from doing terrible things to the environment. But it’s actually quite the opposite. Now, it’s being used by powerful interests, to stop public institutions and government from building infrastructure, that we need to protect the environment and do a lot of other things that are just very, very clearly in the public interest.

AW  17:16  So deregulation is a very charged word for a lot of people. Do you think that having a piece like this now I thought it was very well reasoned and well presented? But are you maybe giving some ammunition to the right wingers or the anti environmentalist movement saying, See the problem with renewables rolling out? Or actually the environmentalists, you’re trying to say something very nuanced? And sometimes that can get lost? Why don’t you kind of put it in context for us if you can?

TN  17:45  I mean, first of all, this is what this is what sort of dogmatists on, you know, in the environmental community have been saying for decades, no, no, no, no, we can’t talk, you know, if you, if you let the camels nose in the tent. It will, you know, you’re just kind of giving Sucre to the enemy. These arguments, it’s all about fighting, and, you know, they’re still fighting the last war. It’s like, the idea that, well, you know, Republicans and right wingers have been for deregulation. So anytime someone says deregulation, it must be a right wing thing. You know, at some point, you got to go like, like, you know, regulation might not be the solution to every problem. You know, and you look at the problem of climate change, especially, and I think the thing that’s really, really clear today is that you’re just not going to regulate yourself your way to a low carbon, us or global economy. It’s just, it’s just not going to happen. You know, again, it is a generative project, not a restricted project. If you want to get off of fossil fuels, you literally have to go rebuild the entire global energy economy, just full stop. There’s no other way to do it. And, and literally trying to kind of, you know, restrict and regulate the bad things is not going to get the good things built. We know that we’ve seen it for tea, you know, you have to go, you need cheap, clean technology, and you need to build infrastructure. And if you want to cut emissions fast, you got to do it fast. And you’re not gonna do that with the environmental regulatory kind of framework that we inherited from, you know, the sort of first generation of modern environmentalists who went and did all this in the 60s and 70s. And a bunch of it made sense then, in 1970, with Caltrans trying to build a six lane highway from San Diego. Oregon, the California Environmental Quality Act made some sense in 2022, where we are, you know, if you listen to what like the Biden ministration says, We need to go and basically get the entire electrical grid to zero emissions by 2035. We are not going to do that. You know, there’s a great paper that a couple of very progressive Law School professors at like UCLA, and I think maybe Vanderbilt wrote, and it’s called a call that you can have a green new deal with old green laws. And, and that’s the, that’s the kind of quandary we’re faced with. So you got to decide what you care about. You got to decide if you’re sort of still so scarred by some set of battles you had in 1984 with Ronald Reagan, that you’re not going to countenance any significant change to environmental regulatory laws today, so that we can go build all this green infrastructure we need to build but if you’re not willing to do that, don’t think that we are going to cut emissions fast or anytime soon?

(Music Break)

AW  22:22  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Ted Nordhaus. Ted is the founder and executive director of the breakthrough Institute. So let’s look at some solutions. If you were talking to the Biden administration, today, in addition to the regulatory problems, where would you want to focus efforts?

TN  22:44  You know, I mean, look, I think there’s a lot of good stuff and build back better, you know, the climate provisions that we just go pass on the clean energy provisions. I mean, there’s a lot of money there. For offshore wind, there’s a lot of money there for long distance, high voltage transmission, there’s a lot of money there for electric vehicle, charging infrastructure, there’s a lot of money there to keep existing nuclear plants open. And to commercialize the first advanced Gen four non Light Water nuclear reactors, which is something I think is really important, a lot of money there for, you know, carbon capture. And, you know, especially in a lot of kind of industrial, you know, we kind of tend to think of, of a lot of this through the lens of either vehicles, or electricity generation, but there’s just a huge amount of emissions and fossil fuels that are sort of necessary for industrial processes, steel, concrete, all sorts of other things. And those things are all much harder to decarbonize than either an electrical grid, or light duty, you know, personal vehicle, there’s a lot of money there. There’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to get built. You know, there’s a lot of innovation that we still need to do, you know, whether that’s around, you know, how you make steel, without coal, which is a critical input to virtually all steel production globally, and not just for the energy, but there’s a part of the chemical, literally part of the chemistry of smelting steel. You know, similar issues around most concrete production today, similar issues around fertilizer production today. It goes on and on once you get into the sort of production side of the economy, just huge amounts of innovation that are needed if you’re going to wean any of that off of fossil fuels. So, you know, we need to do build back better. We need to do more than that. We need to reform the Nuclear Regulatory Commission since its founding in 1970. The five, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has never licensed a new reactor design that was subsequently built. So, and even getting a reactor license today, you know, today takes at least a decade and a billion dollars just to license the thing, that’s before you start building it. So if you want cheap nuclear, you know, you’re going to need to reform the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which today literally says, you need to spend whatever it costs to get as close as possible to absolutely zero risk, even if it’s entirely theoretical risk, like, you could never actually see it in a large population, you know, through an epidemiological study. This is an entirely, theoretical cancer risk, things like that. And we will not take into account any of the risks associated with not building…

AW  26:05  Right, that’s, that’s the downside, like we say, in Germany, right, they got rid of all their nuclear plants. And what happened?

TN  26:12  Yeah, yeah, built, you know, they’re, they’re, they’re still building coal plants. And, of course, they’re totally dependent on Russian gas, which has been a huge issue in terms of kind of rallying the European Union to sort of confront Russia. So and, and even if you don’t even take the climate impacts, just the Clean Air impacts, I mean, you know, what we know again, and again, time and again, is that when you close nuclear plants, you don’t build them, what get what they get replaced with is a lot of gas or coal. That’s been the case literally everywhere. And just just the public health consequences of continuing to operate, or building new fossil fuel, you know, gas or coal plants, they just dwarfed any sort of risk that anyone is talking about, in terms of risks associated with modern nuclear power plants. And, you know, I just think, you know, obviously, I’ve been a reformer for a long time, but we just gotta, you know, ask ourselves, you know, what, what of these things and sort of these dogmas and laws and policies and institutions that we inherited, are still useful, and what needs to go away. And that doesn’t mean we should stop caring about the environment. There’s a lot of work to do. But to do a lot of that work. You know, a bunch of a bunch of sort of inherited environmental kind of dogmas and ideas and laws and institutions just need to go away.

Alex Wise  27:52  He’s the Founder and Executive Director of The Breakthrough Institute, Ted Nordhaus. Ted, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Ted Nordhaus 27:59  Happy to do it. Good to talk to you again, Alex.

Narrator  28:03  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise, additional music by Afro cubism, Stevie Wonder and the police check out our website at SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.