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U.S. Energy Development To Take Nebraska-Sized Land Chunk by 2030

The growth in U.S. energy development by 2030 will lead to a loss of habitat larger than Nebraska, regardless of whether cap-and-trade (CAT) legislation is enacted, the Nature Conservancy said in a new report.

The report, published Tuesday in PloS One, analyzed land-use implications under different scenarios, including consequences if climate change legislation similar to the 2008 CAT legislation were to pass. For their analysis, Nature Conservancy scientists used current Energy Information Agency (EIA) forecasts for the U.S. energy mix in 2030. Only land impacts in the United States were studied; for example, impacts in Canada for drilling natural gas for export to the United States were not considered.

"Biofuels have the greatest cumulative areal impact of any energy production technique, despite providing less than 5% of the U.S. total energy under all scenarios," said the report. "Biofuel production, and hence new area impacted, is similar among scenarios because EIA's economic model suggests that, under current law, incentives for biofuel production cause expansion of this energy production technique regardless of climate policy." Nuclear power was found to use the least amount of land.

"Our analysis provides a broad overview of what change in the energy sector will mean for area impacted in different natural habitat types, recognizing that such a broad analysis will inevitably have to simplify parts of a complex world," the authors noted. Called "energy sprawl" by the authors, the report explains how habitat destruction is an unintended consequence regardless of how energy is developed. The authors also offer recommendations to reduce land impacts.

If a climate change bill similar to the 2008 CAT legislation were to be enacted, the authors estimated that the increased build-up of wind turbines and biofuels would require an additional 38,600 square miles of land over the next 20 years -- an increase of 48% from today's energy development, said Robert McDonald, the lead author of the report. However, even if the legislation is not enacted, the Nature Conservancy estimated that new renewable energy projects over the coming two decades would require a total land area larger than Minnesota, he said.

"Depending on the details of the bill, there may be millions of acres of new development," McDonald said of proposed climate change legislation. "We're trying to make sure that 'energy sprawl' is one of the things policymakers are thinking about."

If no climate change bill is passed, new coal-fired power plants will be built on more than 10,000 square miles of conifer and deciduous forests, grasslands and desert, the report found. Under a climate bill similar to the one proposed in 2008, the costs for power from burning fossil fuels would rise and the area needed for coal-burning power plants would be reduced by about 2,900 square miles.

"In the scenarios we considered, there is a tendency for greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to be associated with a greater total new area affected by energy development," the report stated. "A decrease in U.S. emissions increases the new area impacted, although the magnitude of the effect is policy-specific."

The Nature Conservancy report said "at least four ways" are available to reduce emissions and avoid the potential side effect of energy sprawl.

"The possibility of widespread energy sprawl increases the need for energy conservation, appropriate siting, sustainable production practices and compensatory mitigation offsets," the authors noted.

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