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‘Resolving Land and Energy Conflicts’: Book Review

Resolving Land and Energy Conflicts is a groundbreaking effort that documents conflicts and strategies for collaboration in today’s U.S. energy sector. It explores four types of notoriously conflictive energy projects – onshore wind, nuclear waste storage, oil and gas, and linear projects such as transmission lines and pipelines. The unparalleled expertise and combined decades of mediation experience provided by authors Patrick Field, Tushar Kansal, Catharine Morris, and Stacie Smith, make it a read densely packed with information and useful recommendations for practitioners.

Few books have applied conflict resolution to U.S. domestic energy production, and this project goes far beyond simply filling that gap. Incredible advances in technology and rapidly changing regulatory priorities have dramatically altered the energy landscape in the past decade, and this book captures the most up-to-date tensions and experimental solutions currently at play. It presents a compelling balance both of in-depth, local case studies and high-level summaries of the most common challenges facing energy developers and communities across the nation.

Each chapter begins with a discussion of the current growth of the energy resource under examination and particular types of land use conflicts most often associated with its development. The authors then provide a detailed analysis of the regulatory frameworks currently governing siting those energy projects as well as the kinds of new rulemaking systems being considered in various regions. To conclude each section, they offer a series of succinct yet specific opportunities for collaboration and conflict resolution. Recommendations are aimed at a wide variety of stakeholders, including governments, regulators, developers, communities, and mediation practitioners.

Perhaps the most comprehensive and valuable contribution of the book is its detailed documentation of extremely complex jurisdictional conflicts between local, state, and federal regulatory authorities. Tailored for a U.S. audience, it also gives special attention to the unique dynamics at play between private landowners and energy developers as they interact with changing and often undefined protocols governing siting and operation of energy facilities. Particularly in the cases of wind development and domestic oil and gas production, both of which have seen exponential growth in recent years, there is still much confusion about who holds jurisdictional control over various stages of permitting and rulemaking in many places.

Several common themes emerge in the recommendations for collaboration sections provided at the end of each chapter. One is voluntary actions taken by energy developers that increase transparency, education, and accessibility for the public either before or after an energy facility is sited in a “host” community. This can be augmented with voluntary agreements or guidelines for best practices in community relations. On a more structural level, recommendations are made for increasing coordination between various levels of government to ensure streamlined processes for proposals to be reviewed and conflicts managed. Lastly, it stresses the importance of feasibility assessments and community engagement before project siting is initiated in order to get ahead of potential conflicts and prevent their emergence when possible. In cases such as nuclear waste storage siting where local benefits are minimal, recommendations focus more on honest community education regarding risks, fair compensation for host communities, and “consent-based” project siting.

While the book is a wealth of knowledge on the topics it chooses to focus on, it also misses and/or downplays a couple key tensions in today’s energy landscape.

One area of conflict assessment the book omits is identity-based motivations for communities’ resistance to the development of certain energy resources. It makes a few references in the introduction and in fossil fuel project sections that energy facility siting conflicts may become symbolic of larger political conversations, most notably related to climate change. However, beyond brief discussions of ideology, it does not attempt to address the underlying values that may lead to such entrenched conflict scenarios. This may come off as a strength to those simply interested in the book’s practical recommendations but may represent a weakness for those seeking to truly transform energy conflicts as facilitators.

The tension over energy development creates many complex types of conflicts  as described in the recently-published book Advances in Groundwater Governance. Identity conflicts associated with hydrofracking and groundwater governance are an example of how to further explore identity positions within the energy field. The authors of Resolving Land and Energy Conflicts could use a similar framework to expand their analysis of values- and identity-based conflicts at play in energy facility siting. While most references in the book refer to identity clashes between climate activists and pro-industry community members, a more thorough analysis may include deeper dynamics such as the underlying identity threats experienced by fossil fuel developers in today’s changing political landscape.

Further, the authors make a questionable omission of any discussion of solar energy siting conflicts, their reasoning being that it is not currently expanding as rapidly as the other energy sources discussed and that “solar has been sited in ways and in places that many find acceptable or even desirable.” Indeed, there is a growing conversation in certain parts of the country about collaborative relationships developing between landowners and solar energy developers. One notable example gaining recent publicity is between farmers and solar companies in areas of high agricultural production. Though often painted in a positive light, land use conflicts between agriculture and PV solar are likely to grow increasingly contentious as stronger climate policies across the nation mandate that more and more valuable land be used for solar generation plants. Future research on energy land use conflict will likely need to address this rising tension and present new opportunities for collaboration in this arena.

All in all, the book does an incredible job of distilling complex land use conflicts associated with energy production into succinct summaries and well-formulated recommendations that are ready to be picked up by any conflict resolution professional working in land use planning and/or energy facility siting. I highly recommend it and look forward to reading future publications by the Consensus Building Institute team.


Alex Renirie

Alex Renirie is a graduate student at the University of Oregon pursuing concurrent Master's degrees in Conflict and Dispute Resolution and Environmental Studies. Prior to moving to Oregon in 2018, she spent nearly a decade working for environmental and social justice nonprofits as an organizer, trainer, and administrator for grassroots… MORE >


Todd Jarvis

Todd Jarvis is a Certified Mediator and faculty member at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon. MORE >

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