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Environmental Justice Case Study
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In order not to overextend the limited resources of the group, it was decided to focus the study on environmental issues associated with two major biomass development projects presently under discussion in Hawaii: 1 energy tree plantations, and 2 fuel alcohol production. Each member of the group then wrote a working paper on a topic dealing with energy tree plantations or alcohol, developed in as much depth as possible in the one or two months available for the studies. Copies of the working papers, which are referenced in this report and which expand upon the topics discussed here in much more detail, may be obtained upon request from the East-West Environment and Policy Institute.
In the past several years, various research laboratories and consulting firms have written several hundred reports on biomass technology, many of them on contract with the United States Department of Energy. Many can be regarded as a first generation of alternative energy studies that are generic in character. The main impression that comes from reading them is that evaluating and planning alternative energy development is a process of overwhelming complexity. Numerous agricultural or tree crops might be used as the plant material, and numerous processes might be used to transform it into usable forms of energy.
It is apparent from the reports that it is difficult to predict how well a given approach for producing energy may function on a large scale, including how it would fit into existing systems for energy distribution and marketing, and how it would compete for existing financial resources. It is equally difficult to imagine the numerous possible environmental and social side effects of these massive new energy industries, and even more difficult to communicate what is known about these effects in a way that is useful for others who are responsible for energy policy decisions.
The main concern of most reports is the technical and economic feasibility of different production or conversion processes. Although some of the reports do not mention the environment at all, a large percentage provide at least summary assessments of environmental impacts. Such assessments most commonly give information about air or water pollutants associated with the production or conversion processes.
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Among these reports are a number that specifically address environmental assessment issues. Many of the reports are able to enumerate possible environmental effects only in general terms while treating economic and technical aspects of production with greater precision. Even when environmental effects are explained and discussed in much greater detail, there remain many effects for which it is difficult to assess what they would be like in reality. Some of the reports present tables of source data which can be used to calculate the expected magnitude of the effects for particular situations.
However, even with this information, it is often difficult to judge whether a certain effect would be severe enough to warrant concern. This first generation of reports basically enumerates environmental considerations that should be taken into account when developing biomass energy.
These reports should be useful to contractors of environmental assessments for particular biomass development projects, indicating which environmental impacts should be covered by an assessment. Most of the reports discuss numerous environmental impacts directly related to the fact that large-scale energy farms would require an expansion of acreage under cultivation, thereby increasing environmental impacts customarily associated with agriculture. An additional consideration is the need to sustain agricultural systems with fertilizers, due to the depletion of organic matter and mineral nutrients during a harvest.
This is a characteristic of intensive agriculture that is accentuated in energy farming if plant residues are removed for energy use rather than left to be reincorporated into the soil. All of these effects apply to tree farming as well as agricultural crops, though they may be less severe due to the longer crop cycles of tree farming. The environmental assessment reports also discuss the competition that would exist between the use of land for energy farms and other land uses.
Energy farms could displace other agricultural activities, or they could extend agriculture to new areas, and tree farms could be located in places currently devoted to agriculture, grazing, or forests. All of the reports make this basic point, but few take it further.
Top Environmental Problems and their Impact on Global Business
They find it difficult to give specific details of the likely consequences that massive changes in land use would have on the quality of our lives. The reports are generally lacking in a useful translation of the technical information on energy production processes to what this means to human welfare. They provide information, for example, on the concentration of a particular pollutant in the effluent of a particular production process, but they often do not deal with the question of whether that pollutant will accumulate to significant levels in the environment.
Nor do they deal with the question of what might be the impact of those pollution levels on human health or other dimensions of human welfare. It is true that evaluations of this sort can sometimes be done only in the context of a specific situation associated with a specific development project. Nonetheless, to be useful for energy planning and policy decisions, evaluations should be stated in terms of human welfare, putting into perspective the trade-offs between different energy development options.
Thus, although the reports supply a wealth of information, they fall short of what is needed for policy and planning decisions. The reader is left with an enormous number of facts but little sense of perspective or context. Anyone who is trying to decide between different approaches to biomass energy production--or to contrast biomass energy with other forms of alternative energy--would have little basis for incorporating any of this vast and confusing array of environmental information into a decision.