It’s typical for energy developers facing community resistance to proposed facilities to try to discredit opponents by calling them NIMBY (Not in My Backyard), steering the argument away from health and environmental impacts to simply one of aesthetics. Corporate profiteers argue that local opposition doesn’t have a problem with a given energy technology itself — so long as they don’t have to look at it.
So, how far are dirty energy opportunists off base when they toss the NIMBY label around in an attempt to sway public opinion and influence government policy in regards to their pollution factories?
Public Strategy Group’s focus is to give its corporate clients — including nuclear, bioenergy and natural gas corporations, along with offshore investment companies and Wal-Mart — “strategic advantage over their opponents in the public” and government by “countering community opposition.”
Company President Al Maiorino claims that “opponents may favor clean energy, however they don’t want it located anywhere they can see it.” Industry’s main talking point is that members of the public don’t actually have a problem with the concept of a biomass incinerator or natural gas-fired facility, simply its location.
Incinerators have such a stigma associated with them that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of NIMBY actually includes a specific mention, as “opposition to the locating of something considered undesirable (as a prison or incinerator) in one's neighborhood.” A community is only NIMBY if it fights the siting of a facility without articulating a complete rejection of that form of energy.
In the case of mountain top coal removal, we frequently see public blowback at the site of extraction in Appalachia, along the thousands of miles of transportation routes across the country, and at the coal-fired power facilities themselves. This far-reaching opposition, from the source to the burners, has also recently popped up in regards to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for natural gas. The end result is that the fossil fuel industry faces conflict wherever it turns.
More often than not, with some notable exceptions, the anti-fossil fuels movement tends to defy industry’s NIMBY slur by giving a thumbs down to the use of that dirty energy source entirely, no matter where it’s located.
Think Locally, Act Locally?
While fossil fuel opponents typically employ a local, regional, and national strategy, the majority of resistance to biomass energy occurs at the facility level only — due, in part, to communities simply having a limited amount of time and resources to expend.
However, on many occasions, communities fighting a proposed biomass incinerator have made the case that “biomass isn’t right” for their town — implicitly (and in some cases, explicitly) suggesting that another area would be better suited for the facility. In some cases, communities have successfully chased an incinerator developer out of town, only to have them set up shop in a poorer community a few dozen miles down the road, bringing up environmental justice concerns.
So, what makes the biomass fight different from, say, other types of dirty energy resistance?
First, unlike concentrated deposits of uranium or natural gas located only in specific regions around the country, biomass fuel — forests, trash, crops, manure or other organic materials — is more plentiful and typically found within a hundred miles or less of a facility (except in the case of wood pellet exports to Europe and Asia). The relative abundance of forests and other biomass fuels means transportation routes aren’t as long and can go by truck over existing roadways, so they don’t generate the sort of opposition that comes where new rail lines or pipelines are required.
Second, unlike mining or drilling for energy-dense coal or oil, the sheer number of trees needed to feed a biomass incinerator requires thousands of acres of isolated forest stands spread out over the landscape. This lack of one or a few large, central extraction locations makes it tricky to launch on-the-ground monitoring and publicize environmental impacts.
Third, biomass opposition does not enjoy the massive foundation funding that goes to fighting fossil fuels, so the movement is far more grassroots — without as heavy a presence of Big Greens facilitating opposition where it might not form organically.
Whatever the reasons, when dirty energy opponents focus exclusively on stopping the construction of a facility in their town without tying into a nation-wide movement, they lend credibility to industry’s NIMBY label — diluting the health and environmental arguments against the polluting energy source itself.
Weakness as Strength
The far-flung nature of forests is both the main reason why biomass energy opposition tends to be so localized and is also a great opportunity for national solidarity.
More and more, the biomass industry has been setting its sights on public lands — National Forests and Bureau of Land Management tracts — to feed their incinerators. Inflaming fears of wildfire and insects, the biomass industry has teamed up with Big Timber and vote-hungry politicians to demand a rapid uptick in logging on public lands owned by all Americans. 2003’s Orwellian Healthy Forest Restoration Act and more recently Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) Senate Bill S.1784 and Senate Bill S.1301 seek to get out the cut by insisting that, counter to sound science and common sense, the only way to “save” forests is to log them.
Perhaps, once Americans realize that the millions of acres of oxygen-producing, carbon-sequestering forests to be chipped and burned for smokestack energy are under their control, they will understand the importance of snuffing out biomass incineration nation-wide. One such response to public lands protection, the Act to Save America’s Forests, has enjoyed bi-partisan support from over 140 members of Congress and been introduced into both the Senate and House of the U.S. Congress for over a decade.
From NIMBY to NOPE
Fighting facilities at a local level is the foundation of the dirty energy resistance. But, without tying into a national framework, such as the Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign, the smokestack industry will simply keep playing its game of musical chairs, siting facilities in the poorest towns and/or communities of color.
Pushback to a dirty energy facility, be it a biomass incinerator or “clean” coal-fired burner, needs to be accompanied by disapproval of its siting anywhere else, condemnation of all forms of its technology, and refusal to endorse a dirty energy “alternative.”
Anything less than national anti-dirty energy solidarity negates the genuine concerns of harmful health, climate, and ecosystem impacts from smokestack energy by lending credence to industry’s NIMBY name-calling. The day that dirty energy opponents finally close their ranks in unity, the pollution pushers will have nowhere left to run.