“All politics is local,” former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill liked to say. Loosely translated, what he meant was that we all are self-interested, which makes crafting policies that serve the greater good of the human community a delicate proposition. Humans are not altruistic by nature. We’re all looking out for Number One first and foremost.
Renewable energy is a marvelous thing. Forget about the environmental benefits for a moment. Focus on the fact that there are no fuel costs associated with renewables. Sunshine and wind are free. The only costs are associated with getting renewable energy from where it is made to where it is needed. Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of that?
It’s a simple question, but the answer is complicated. For example, the Indiana legislature is considering a measure that would limit the ability of local communities to oppose renewable energy facilities. The purpose, of course, is to reduce the amount of time needed to obtain approval of those projects at the local level. The state of New York has passed a similar bill that transfers most siting decisions to a the state and bars local interference.
Home Rule & NIMBY
The problem, according to Gizmodo, is that Indiana has a long tradition of home rule, which allows local communities to decide what is best for their residents. At present, 32 of Indiana’s 92 counties have some form of laws on the books that either ban wind and solar installations or place strict limits on how and where they can be built.
Gizmodo says Indiana is ripe for renewable energy development. A 2020 report by the American Wind Energy Association says the state has is 12th in the nation for wind power, with 2,317 megawatts of installed capacity. There are another 1,400 megawatts of wind projects currently in the works. The wind industry has created up to 7,000 jobs in the Hoosier State. 22 of the state’s largest manufacturers are pleading for access to more renewable energy.
HB 1381 passed the Indiana House in February and is now being considered by the Senate. It would do away with local ordinances that affect the permitting process for renewable energy projects and replace them with a standard set of statewide requirements. But opposition from the state’s counties is strong and growing stronger. “In my 15 years at the Indiana state house, I’ve never seen a bill garner this much attention and work,” says Kerwin Olson, the executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, a consumer advocacy group that works on energy issues in Indiana.
Betsy Mills, a member of the Henry County Council, has been speaking out against HB 1381. “This bill essentially says OK, local elected officials. You are no longer allowed to set standards for local ordinances.” (Henry County recently passed an outright ban on solar projects and strict siting requirements on wind projects that effectively make it impossible to construct wind farms.) “Anything you wanted to do to develop your counties with regards to wind and solar — it’s out of your hands now.” So far, 60 of the state’s 90 counties have passed resolutions opposing HB 1381. “Counties are absolutely all-in in fighting this,” Olson said. “We’ve got very, very active primarily anti-wind groups popping up throughout the state, all motivated by different things.”
Home rule is about more than renewable energy. There is a struggle going on between the state legislature and local communities over plastic bag bans, minimum wage ordinances, and defund the police initiatives. Betsy Mills says she isn’t opposed to renewable energy as much as she is against being told what’s best for her local community by state legislators at the capitol.
Home Rule & States Rights
It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see how such concerns can play out at the national level as the Biden administration prepares to roll out its vision for rebuilding America’s long neglected infrastructure. A distaste for dictates from the federal government are a huge part of the political battles that have roiled American politics since before the American Revolution.
Mills tells Gizmodo, “There are a lot of counties in Indiana that say ‘Hey, we want wind, we want solar.’ They know their counties better. Instead of pushing this one-size-fits-all set of regulatory standards on the entire state, why isn’t the state working with those counties to promote renewable projects? Strip out wind and solar, put in any other words in this bill. Car factory, ice cream store on every block — that would be cool, actually — but it’s still a bad bill.” Why? Because it crams government down the throat of local communities.
When Tip O’Neill said all politics is local, the message he was trying to convey is that the business of politicians is building consensus from the bottom up rather than dictating from a distance. The Obama administration created a furious backlash from farmers in Midwest and West with its Waters of the United States rule, which outlawed pesticide and fertilizer runoff into any body of water that flows into the nation’s network of streams and rivers. Rather than work with the farmers to help them understand the reasons for the rule, it simply ran roughshod over their concerns. Reaction to the Waters of the United States rule was a powerful part of the anger that swept the prior administration into power.
The Common Good
The purpose of any government is to promote the common good. Some people misconstrue that idea as socialism, but it’s just common sense. The opposite of pursuing the common good is giving everyone license to pursue their own individual self interest no matter how much that degrades society as a whole. It is the rationale that says corporate polluters should be exempt from paying for the harm they do. It glorifies the right of any person to stroll the streets with two assault rifles, a collection of handguns, and 300 rounds of ammunition as an expression of personal liberty.
The promise of renewable energy is that is will allow humanity to continue powering the global economy without destroying the environment in the process, but that promise needs the support of people at the local level. Tip O’Neill would completely understand the concerns of those 60 Indiana counties and he would know how to bring them onboard in a way that promotes the common good.
Government doesn’t need more plans or more laws. It needs a better understanding of how to govern. Governing requires consensus building and respect for the opinions of others. Showing people how renewables will bring economic growth and good jobs to their communities is one excellent way of getting people on board with new ideas. As the renewable energy revolution moves forward, good governance could well be the difference between keeping the Earth habitable for humans or not.
Image credit: Library of Congress