Wilderness Awakening

Is renewable always sustainable?  That’s the question that Chile has been struggling with for nearly a decade as it tries to expand its electricity generating capacity.  At issue is the proposal to build 2500 MW worth of hydroelectric power on the two largest rivers in Chilean Patagonia.  The power would be transported via a 1500 km high tension transmission line to the capital Santiago.  The project (known as Hydroaysen) has been driven by a need to increase electricity generation apace with economic growth in a country with few domestic sources of fossil fuels.  Much of Chile’s current power mix is supplied by coal-fired power, requiring the import of coal and contributing to Chile’s CO2 footprint.  Hydroaysen offered an opportunity to both reduce expenditure on coal and decrease Chile’s carbon footprint.

Despite these positives, resistance to Hydroaysen has been extremely high both internationally and domestically.  Up to 64% of Chileans have opposed the project and nearly every major international environmental organization has publically opposed it.  Why does a project that offers to decrease dependence on foreign sources of fuel and, at the same time, reduce carbon emissions face so much opposition?

As the saying goes: location, location, location.  The Baker and Pascua rivers in Patagonia are still truly wild rivers.  The construction of five hydroelectric dams in a region with fewer than 100,000 residents – connected to the rest of the country only by a 1200 kilometer gravel road – would bring a scale of industrial activity never seen there before.  The construction of 1500 km of transmission lines through multiple national parks would irrevocably change one of the few remaining great wilderness areas on the planet.

So while the Hydroaysen project is not without merit – mainly that its clean electricity would replace carbon intensive electricity – it is the threat it poses to Patagonian wilderness that motivates the opposition.  Like in the cases of Pebble Mine and Point Abbot, an expanding industrial process threatens a unique wilderness area.  Unlike the first two examples, Hydroaysen offers a positive step toward cleaner energy while Pebble Mine and Point Abbot do not. Yet opposition to Hydroaysen has been no less vehement than that of the others.  This brings us back to the initial question: is renewable always sustainable?

The answer is no.  While renewable energy is superior to fossil energy from a climatic standpoint, Hydroaysen proves that there are other considerations.  Perhaps primary among these is whether the project threatens unique wilderness.  Any economist should recognize that as the world shrinks and wilderness becomes scarce, those remaining places become increasingly valuable.  It is not enough that a hydroelectric project offers clean, carbon free energy if the cost includes the destruction or despoilment of Patagonia.

Opponents of the Hydroyaysen project have recognized that reality for several years.  Now it appears that the government – and even the project’s sponsors – have been forced to see it as well.  Endesa announced last month that the project is no longer on its list of short to medium term projects.  This is a sign that, after partner Colbun pulled out last year, they are conceding the project is no longer viable.  But regardless of whether they are prepared to voluntarily admit the project has been defeated the decision may ultimately be made for them.  The Piñera administration has left the approval in the hands of President-elect Michelle Bachelet  – who has called the project “unviable” – and seems likely to reject it once she takes office in March.

If she does reject the project it will be a notable victory for the opposition.  Unlike the case of Pebble Mine, where there is a viable and thriving alternative source of income in the form of salmon runs, the only alternatives in the Aysen region are primarily theoretical.  Tourism could be a substantial source of income eventually – and has seen explosive growth recently – but it is far from supporting the region’s economy.  Rejecting Hydroaysen is not a rejection to protect an existing source of economic activity; it is a rejection entirely to preserve the natural endowment of Patagonia and its use as a potential source of income.  It is an explicit recognition that wilderness is more valuable than the economic activity generated by its destruction.

Hydroaysen has not been definitely rejected yet but an eventual rejection looks increasingly likely.  Theodore Roosevelt was perhaps too optimistic when he said 100 years ago that “at last it looks as if our people are awakening” to the need to protect wilderness.  But a rejection of Hydroaysen would represent a significant achievement for the opposition and a notable indication his observation may be coming to pass.  If we are to have any wilderness left in 100 years it must be.

Image Credit: Fernanda Garcia via Wikimedia Commons

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