Delay-and-Block for Pipelines… and Solar?

Last December the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond found that the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail is part of the National Park System, which blocks federal agencies from authorizing a pipeline crossing. Depending upon U.S. Supreme Court action, the ruling in the Cowpasture River Preservation Association v. U.S. Forest Service case could well doom the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which crosses the trail in order to connect Midwest shale gas with Southeastern markets.

Noah Sachs, an environmental law professor at the University of Richmond, asks a provocative question: “Did the Fourth Circuit really turn the Appalachian Trail into a ‘Great Wall’ that blocks all energy transport from the Midwest to the East Coast, as many energy industry analysts have suggested?”

In an essay in The American Prospect, Sachs argues that Cowpasture doesn’t preclude all crossings of the Appalachian Trail, so the “great wall” analogy may not be apt. But here’s a passage that I found profoundly disturbing:

The real significance of the Cowpasture case is that it uses the Appalachian Trail crossing as a legal hook to delay and block the pipeline and raise its costs. There’s nothing wrong with delay-and-block tactics. It’s a strategy that environmentalists have been using since the 1960s. And as the climate crisis heats up, it’s a virtuous one.

Indeed, over the years, environmentalists have perfected the strategem of filing lawsuits to delay and block, and in so doing, they have devised the means to block — or at least render significantly more costly — almost any infrastructure project anywhere. I invite Noah, who is a friend of mine, to contemplate the possibility that those tools may be turned against environmentalist goals.

A group called Citizens for Responsible Solar appears to be adopting delay-and-block tactics to oppose development of Cricket Solar LLC’s proposed 80-megawatt facility along Algonquin Trail in southern Culpeper County. According to the Free Lance-Star, the group has asked the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors of Culpeper County to pause deliberations on the proposal “until a further details review of this application for Culpeper County can be adequately and completely evaluated.”

The citizens group advocates limiting solar farms to industrially zoned land. In neighboring Spotsylvania County, the group notes, a county land-use official has discussed mitigating the impact of a proposed 500-megawatt, 6,500-acre solar farm in the county by setting conditions on soil testing, traffic and parking, and emergency response plan, an invasive-species plan, site-specific safety plans, and a decommissioning plan.

It’s a tried-and-true tactic: Throw everything you can think of against the wall and see what sticks. Drag out the proceedings, run up the legal costs, run up the time-of-money costs, and run up the development and construction costs, until the project no longer makes economic sense.

Consider the political economy of solar energy in Virginia. Where do developers put 6,500-acre solar farms? In rural areas, where cheap, open land is available. What is the political tint of Virginia’s rural counties? They are red flyover country. They are Donald Trump country. Inhabitants resent urban elites, especially environmentalists; they don’t give a hoot about global warming; and they don’t like the idea of outsiders despoiling their countryside to solve a problem that, to their minds, doesn’t need solving.

Grassroots resistance to solar farms has sprouted across rural Virginia. Some has been effective, some not. The resistance hasn’t been well organized, although there are signs that might change. Citizens for Responsible Solar have been spreading its well-articulated vision of “responsible solar development” to other groups fighting solar farms.

What should keep Noah and like-minded brethren awake at night is the prospect that more savvy groups like Citizens for Responsible Solar will use environmentalist delay-and-block tactics to stall large-scale solar development in Virginia. Now, one could argue that they won’t be successful because, unlike the grassroots opposing new pipelines, the grassroots groups opposing solar farms don’t get financial and legal support from the foundations and not-profits  funded by liberal millionaires and billionaires. But what if they did get outside financial support? What, then, could they accomplish?

Another test case will be the deployment of wind power off the Virginia coast. There’s a lot more money in Virginia Beach than in Culpeper County, and there are vested interests like the beach-front hotels that might not warm to the idea of wind turbines on the horizon. What if moneyed interests adopt environmentalist scorched-earth legal tactics to wind farms?

Don’t be surprised if the delay-and-block strategem, like Frankenstein’s monster, one day turns against its creators.