by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTO, left to right: Terry Werner, Donna Tisdale, Peggy Mitchell, Bill Page, Carlos Pelayo
In the Bible, young David took on the seemingly invincible Goliath with a slingshot, killed him and saved his community. At the Activist San Diego (ASD) meeting April 15 at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, five local environmentalist Davids described their challenges to the modern-day Goliaths — giant energy and utility corporations, the state and federal governments, and even mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club — that are foisting huge wind and solar installations on the people of San Diego’s East County region. They also talked about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking” — a new, environmentally devastating way of extracting oil and natural gas from the ground — along with the havoc the proposed Keystone XL pipeline will wreak on the planet, and the malign philosophy behind the corporate/government plans to exploit the environment at all costs.
The first three speakers — Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Group and activist with Back Country Against Dumps; Terry Werner of the Desert Protection Council; and local attorney Bill Page — all talked about the intense conflict between a handful of East County residents and their supporters against utilities, renewable energy companies, government, media and mainstream environmentalists over the plan to turn huge amounts of public land into giant wind- and solar-powered energy factories. Not surprisingly, given America’s sorry history of exploiting and driving out its Native people, Native American reservations are being particularly hard-hit with these developments.
“Almost the entire Campo reservation is going to be turned into turbines,” said Tisdale, who cut her activist teeth with a successful 20-year campaign to keep Campo from being turned into a garbage dump. According to Tisdale, she and her fellow activists spent 15 years working through an official planning process and finally got County approval for a master plan that would keep Campo, Ocotillo and Boulevard, where she lives, relatively undeveloped open space: “One dwelling every 80 acres,” she recalled. Then the federal and state governments, Sempra Energy (San Diego Gas & Electric’s parent company) and various developers of so-called “renewable” projects seized on all that open space until now, as Tisdale acidly put it, “They’re going to turn us into an industrial park.”
Tisdale threw out so much information on the potential dangers of these installations that at times it was hard to pick out what about them riled her the most: the direct effects on local residents, the potential long-term environmental damage or the way the projects are being “fast-tracked” so they don’t have to undergo normal environmental review. “California environmental standards and laws don’t apply to ‘green energy,’” Tisdale said. “San Diego and Imperial Counties and even the federal government are running over us. Governor Jerry Brown says ‘we have to crush’ the opposition to these projects.”
One of the objections Tisdale raised to the wind projects is their sheer size and scope. The towers planned for one East County development are 400 to 515 feet tall — over 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. The actual windmills — the assemblies of three blades and a hub that contains the gears and other mechanisms that make the things work — are the size of a Boeing 747 airliner and weigh over 150 tons. The construction of these installations requires destroying huge amounts of farmland to build not only the wind towers themselves but also the substations that collect any power they generate and transmit it to long powerlines like the Sunrise Powerlink (recently completed despite heavy objections from Tisdale and her fellow activists), where — like all long-distance power transmission — much of the energy generated will be lost along the way.
According to Tisdale, previous communities where giant wind and solar installations have been built have become virtually unlivable. That’s not only because they make huge amounts of noise; even worse, they suck great amounts of water from the ground and thereby threaten people’s drinking and washing supplies. They also increase the danger of wildfires, Tisdale said, because in lightning storms the towers conduct giant amounts of electricity to the ground, where it can ignite brush and other combustible materials. What’s more, cancer rates have gone up in areas where modern-day wind turbines have been built, which Tisdale suspects is due to the huge amounts of microwave energy these things collect. Indeed, Tisdale cited scientific studies that argue that microwave energy is as important a cause of climate change, if not more so, than carbon emissions.
Terry Werner isn’t an East County resident — she lives on the edge of the I-8 corridor in Hillcrest — but because it’s easy for her to get on the freeway and go to the desert for camping trips, she often went there and took an interest in preserving it. She joined the Desert Protection Council, which has existed since 1954. “Our mission is to educate people about all the features of the desert, and hopefully lure people out there so that they’ll love it instead of just driving through it,” she explained. She talked about the reason these giant-scale “renewable energy” projects are being pushed: because they fit “renewable energy” into the business model of giant utilities like SDG&E and Southern California Edison instead of allowing individual households to generate their own power through small-scale solar installations.
“We don’t need any of these big ‘renewable’ projects,” Werner said. Instead, she argued that the future for home energy use should be conservation first — “Do we really need lights and air conditioning on all night, and other wasteful uses of energy?” she said — and then to “look to your local rooftops, schools and public buildings, put solar panels on them and distribute energy to local communities. Large energy projects are 20th century technology. We don’t have to transmit electricity over long distances.” Werner also showed a heartbreaking series of slides showing how the obsession with building large so-called “renewable” energy projects in the desert is destroying the natural beauty, as well as threatening the bighorn sheep and plant species that exist nowhere else with extinction.
Attorney Bill Page talked about his own activism to stop the giant wind projects, the wall of media silence on the issues and the serious questions over whether these installations will actually generate any electricity. “My dad and I did what we were supposed to do” to stop the Ocotillo turbine project, Page said. “The entire project was fast-tracked, moved up one year and approved from January to May. We filed umpteen lawsuits, and now we have 439-foot structures with 747’s used as pinwheels. An aerospace engineer now has this structure just three-tenths of a mile away from a house he built. Who’s going to listen to us? Can I get the media’s attention? They’re not going to rock the boat over this ‘green energy’ project.”
So Page started to research whether the wind projects would actually generate meaningful amounts of energy. What he found wasn’t encouraging. Stonewalled by the local companies — who declared their measurements of wind speed on the site “proprietary information” and refused to share them with him — he went to Siemens, the German company that actually built the turbines. What he found was that the most each of these turbines can generate is 2.3 megawatts of electricity, and whether they come anywhere near that number depends on how fast the wind blows. Page showed a graph from Siemens documenting that the efficiency of the turbines drops dramatically as the wind speed slows, and that in order for them to produce enough electricity to be useful, the wind has to be blowing between 24 and 30 miles per hour. When the wind blows faster than 30 miles an hour, Page explained, it’s considered a storm and the turbines are shut down for safety reasons.
The project developers originally claimed that their installation would generate enough electricity to power 125,000 homes — Page grimly noted that they used that figure instead of an actual number of kilowatt-hours, the usual way electric power generation is measured — but their own report lowered that estimate to 94,000 homes. But that’s only valid, he explained, if the average wind speed in the area is 25 miles per hour. According to Page’s figures, the actual wind speed in the area is a shade under 14 miles per hour — and that means the system will power 10,000 to 14,000 homes. Page said that there are only a few places in the world — “off the coast of Ireland and some parts of Mongolia” — where the wind regularly blows at the 25-mile-per-hour speed needed to make these Siemens turbines work.
“How do these projects get approved?” Page said. “The state doesn’t care how much power the turbines actually produce. They just care about capacity. The wind companies have $534 million in federal subsidies and about 50 to 80 employees. They sell these projects on a benchmark nobody else uses to sell electricity.” He explained that the “number of households” measure is especially deceptive because it ignores that two-thirds of all generated electricity goes to industrial rather than residential uses anyway. What’s more, he said, the utilities ordering these plants from the wind companies that develop them are well aware that they’re not going to produce significant amounts of electricity. They’ve shown that, Page explained, by building 400 megawatts of natural-gas fired “peaker plant” capacity for every 250 megawatts they’ve ordered from “renewable” sources.
Companies, Government to Environment: Frack You!
Peggy Mitchell, representing the local branch of 350.org — the international organization founded by climate-change activist and writer Bill McKibben to put pressure on government and corporations to get the percentage of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere down to 350 parts per million (it’s now at over 400 and climbing) — gave a broader presentation on so-called “fracking” and the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal. “Fracking” — short for “hydraulic fracturing” — is a process that involves extracting oil or natural gas that’s impossible to get out of the ground through older-style drilling techniques. It’s been widely publicized in the East and Midwest but few people know it’s actually going on in California, Mitchell explained.
California’s fracking is happening along the so-called “Monterey shale,” which, as Mitchell pointed out, “covers 1,750 square miles along the Coast and edges up to agricultural land.” It’s also next to the notorious San Andreas Fault which has generated many of the state’s legendary earthquakes, she added. Mitchell argued that fracking is not only environmentally destructive in itself, the oil extracted by it is also going to release so much carbon into the atmosphere that it will literally render the earth uninhabitable. If California’s known oil deposits are fracked, Mitchell said, “we’re talking about 80 million more tons of carbon per year, and it’s really sour, ‘tight’ oil” — meaning that both refining and burning it generate more pollution than the cleaner “light, sweet crude” from Saudi Arabia that’s the world’s benchmark for oil quality.
Mitchell gave an extensive description of just how fracking is done. It involves drilling into the oil or gas deposit horizontally, then injecting materials to break apart (“fracture”) the ground and release the oil. The fluids used to frack contain 80 percent water; most of the rest is sand or glass, but about 1 percent is a blend of benzene and other volatile chemicals that are dangerous in themselves. What’s more, the energy companies doing the fracking have declared that the composition of their fracking fluids are “trade secrets” and therefore don’t have to be revealed to the public — and a bill former vice-president Dick Cheney slipped through Congress in 2005 exempts fracking companies from all environmental laws to protect the air and water supply, so the companies can dump toxic chemicals into drinking-water supplies and release them into the air — and no government agency can stop them.
One reason to oppose fracking, Mitchell said, is the immense amounts of water it uses. “It’s going to take millions of gallons of fresh water,” she explained. “San Diego doesn’t have oil or gas, but it does have a major water problem.” According to Mitchell, energy companies have already diverted 2.3 trillion gallons of water from homes and farms, and they’re bidding two to three times what farmers can afford to pay for the remaining water. If the Monterey shale is fracked extensively, Mitchell warned, San Diego’s chronic water shortages are only going to get worse — and the Imperial Valley, California’s breadbasket, could dry up and revert from productive farmland to desert.
What’s more, Mitchell argued, fracking itself can trigger earthquakes. It’s already done that, she said, in areas like North Dakota that don’t have a history of seismic activity. And because California’s legislators have been slow to address the issue, the state has virtually no regulations in place to restrict fracking or make sure it happens with as little risk as possible. She pointed to a set of proposed fracking regulations from the state’s Department of Oil, Gas and Resources (DOGAR) released in December 2012 and said they had a few good things “but four times as many bad things as good.” The biggest problem with them, Mitchell said, is they don’t require that companies notify nearby homeowners in advance before they frack.
“Even if we get tight regulations, is fracking going to help us?” Mitchell said. “President Obama has talked about this wonderful natural gas production that’s going to give us 80 years of energy independence, but the world’s population is increasing and developing countries are using more energy as they try to catch up to our lifestyle.” Mitchell said fracking is not going to be a solution to the world’s energy needs because not only is it environmentally destructive, it’s also inefficient and energy-intensive because the fracked fields burn out and stop producing sooner than drilled oil and gas fields. “Just to keep us at steady-state they have to keep drilling new wells,” she explained. “There’s a nearly $10 billion gap between the $42 billion per year to produce the gas and its $32.5 billion value.”
Mitchell also discussed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Alberta, Canada — home of “the dirtiest oil on earth,” she said — to the Gulf of Mexico. Contrary to the rhetoric of pipeline supporters, Mitchell said, most of the oil pumped out of Canada and shipped through the U.S. via Keystone would be sold to other countries rather than used in the U.S. What’s more, she said, “Keystone will unleash 200 billion tons of carbon, taking us from 400+ parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to over 600 parts per million” — which led climate scientist and pioneering anti-global warming activist James Hansen to say that if Keystone is built it’s “game over for the climate.”
The final presentation at Activist San Diego’s environmental meeting was given by Native American activist Carlos Pelayo, who talked about the history of how Native lands have been singled out for environmentally destructive projects: first gold, silver and copper mining; then oil drilling; later uranium mining; and now fracking and the sorts of massive so-called “green energy” projects Tisdale, Werner and Page oppose locally.
The other speakers had used PowerPoint slides in their presentations. Pelayo went farther and presented film footage of government hearings at which Native concerns about such projects were ridiculed. He also showed about two-fifths of a documentary about the Colorado River, in which two young men set out to kayak down its length and make a film about it — only they eventually had to trade in their kayaks for rafts, and then give up watercraft altogether, because well before they got to the U.S.-Mexico border the once-“mighty” Colorado had turned into a series of ditches and all that flowed in them was agricultural runoff.
Pelayo exploded the myth that Native Americans will necessarily believe in the environmentalist traditions of their ancestors and seek to protect these lands. “Many Native people are trying to survive economically, so they’ll sell out to the energy companies and take the money,” he explained. “They’ve gone to the same schools as the rest of us and their values can change. You disconnect the people from the land, and they’re not going to protect the land because they won’t have any idea of the value of it.” He said white authorities have deliberately indoctrinated Native people against their environmental traditions so they’ll see land the way whites do: as a commodity to be bought and sold. “If all you want to do is escape [the reservation], you have no connection to the land you’re on and you don’t care about it as long as the water comes out of the tap, the lights go on and the trash is picked up.”
After Pelayo showed the film of the two young men rafting the Colorado River, he noted that most of the wastewater from fracking is going to end up in what’s left of the Colorado and will ultimately get dumped into the sea. “It’s just one thing after another,” he said. “As long as the people who are connected to the land are eliminated, or their historic, traditional or spiritual memory of the land is cut off, how much support do you think you’re going to get from the general public? We’re talking about a whole different world view of how we live and where the source of our life comes from. We have been so disconnected by our Western view — all of us. We’re all guilty of it. We value other things. And that is why the things that have been presented to you tonight happen. This isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the only time. But we know that this industry — energy, mining, oil, whatever it is — is always about short-term profits, never thinking long-term. We’ve already done that in the United States and now we’re doing it in the Amazon, in Mexico, all over the world, so we can have our little cell phones operating.”