TANSTAAFL and Environmentalism


Wind Turbine, Central Snake River Plain, Idaho

WC has written about TANSTAAFL before. The acronym stands for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch,” and is a reference to the bars and taverns that used to offer a “free lunch,” where, for the cost of two over-priced beers, you could have an over-salted, thirst-inducing lunch. The price of the lunch, of course, was hidden in the price of the beers.

With help from the late economist Milton Friedman, TANSTAAFL was more or less adopted into economics, when Friedman wrote a book with the same name. It was even popularized by the late Robert Heinlein in a science fiction novel.

The principle applies to the choices facing environmentalists, too. There is an environmental cost to every answer to many, if not all, environmental challenges.

Some examples are easier than others. Burning fossil fuels for energy is frying the planet. Until someone invests a cost-effective, environmentally benign carbon sequestration technology, we have to stop burning fossil fuels or we are going to cook the planet and ourselves. Fossil fuels are only inexpensive measured by their purchase price, not by their devastating consequential costs. Clearly, we need a greener form of energy.

The thing is, any green energy solution to generating power is going to have environmental impact, too, because it’s never “free.” Wind turbines have a significant construction cost, require considerable maintenance, chop birds and bats to shreds and are remarkably unaesthetic. Hydroelectricity interferes with anadromous fish reproduction, alters the dammed river’s water chemistry and temperatures and creates downstream risks. Manufacture of the cement used in most dams produces appalling amounts of carbon dioxide. Solar power requires extensive mining for the materials that go into solar cells, alters the habitat where the solar farms are placed and under current technology have a life of only about 25-30 years. Wind, solar and hydro are all only semi-reliable at best, dependent on weather and water flows and evolving battery technology. Nuclear power generates dangerous waste which lasts, effectively, forever, and we have no sensible way of managing that waste.

Every form of “green” – or at least less “black” – energy has an environmental cost. Because TANSTAAFL. Energy is never “free” or free of adverse environmental costs and impacts. This doesn’t mean we are paralyzed. Rather, it’s a matter of finding the least damaging form. Which, in many cases, is a situational solution. It’s a multi-variate analysis.

For example, there is an effort underway to build a wind turbine farm in the Bennett Mountains, east of Boise. Wind turbines are a fine source of green energy, but the Bennett Mountains are important habitat for the endangered Greater Sage Grouse, as well as a migratory flightway for raptors. Is the tradeoff of green wind energy for loss of critical sage grouse habitat worth it? Is the risk of death or injury to migrating raptors justifiable if the benefit is renewable energy?

It gets harder. The Lava Ridge wind energy project involves the eastern Snake River Plain north of Twin Falls, Idaho. The proposed location adjoins the Minidoka National Historic Site. Minidoka was a Japanese internment camp, a concentration camp, where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during the anti-Japanese hysteria in World War II. The location is opposed by defenders of the historic site; towering wind turbines will certainly change the look of the historic site. Are those cultural considerations and aesthetic considerations more important than the green energy?

It get even harder. Lithium is indispensable to development of batteries using the best available technology. There are known lithium reserves in the Great Basin; among the salts concentrated by the salt pans in the arid region are salts of lithium. It takes immense amounts water to extract lithium, and water is in very short supply in the Great Basin, a problem aggravated by the current drought. Should water be re-appropriated to allow lithium extraction in the United States, at the cost of crops and farmland?

If that’s not complicated enough, some industries are trying to co-opt green energy. For example, Perpetua Minerals, the developer of the environmentally dangerous Stibnite Mine in Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains in central Idaho, is promoting a huge gold mine as an antimony mine, not a gold mine. Antimony is a useful industrial metal, and developing reserves in the United States is desirable, but can you allow that to be the excuse for the damage a gigantic gold mine will cause? And it is a gold mine. Look at the projected values involved:

MineralEst. Annual YieldUnitUnit PriceEst. Annual Value
Gold/year463,000ounces$1,899.00$879,237,000
Antimony/year18,900,000pounds$0.46$8,694,000
Unit prices are as of close of business January 12, 2023

The value of the gold is more than 100 times greater than the value of the antimony.1 It’s a gold mine that, oh, yeah, produces antimony as well. In fact, the value of the antimony is so low that it may not be worth producing it at all. Perpetua is attempting to disguise its near-billion dollar a year gold mine as a modest antimony mine. Perpetua is engaged in a kind of jingoist greenwashing to hide the TANSTAAFL.

WC is in no way suggesting that green energy isn’t the solution. There really isn’t any alternative. But WC is suggesting that proper evaluation of green energy solutions requires identification of risks, prioritization of the risks and careful balancing. Not unqualified acceptance of a proposed energy project because it is green. Because TANSTAAFL. We won’t find perfect solutions. But, in the motto of Idaho Conservation League, we cannot let perfect be the enemy of “good.”2

And WC will insist upon the absolute, unqualified rejection of all attempts at greenwashing.


1 It’s actually worse than it appears. The antimony will be shipped to South America as a concentrate, where the antimony will be extracted. That cost, not even including the carbon cost, further reduces the economic value of the antimony offered as an excuse for the mine.

2 WC is a member of Idaho Conservation League, and even a member of its Board of Directors, but the opinions expressed in this blog post are his own, and in no way represent any official position of ICL.

3 thoughts on “TANSTAAFL and Environmentalism

  1. Pingback: TANSTAAFL and Environmentalism — Calculus of Decay | Vermont Folk Troth

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