Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on HidroAysen and Patagonia

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Around this time last year, we published an exclusive interview with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in the winter edition of Patagon Journal. Kennedy spoke to us about the environmental threats to the Futaleufu River and Chilean Patagonia. Here is a link to that interview.
Now, Kennedy is back in the news in Chile. Kennedy, who is president and co-founder of the international Waterkeeper Alliance and a leading environmental lawyer in the United States, has recently been featured in articles in Chile’s Que Pasa magazine and the La Tercera newspaper giving his views on HidroAysen and the current energy and dams debate. He also talks about his future plans, much of which will be done in concert with Futaleufú Riverkeeper, Patagonia's first Waterkeeper program.  Recently, we were given the full transcript from the interview he did for those media. Excerpts:
The Chilean government rejected the HidroAysen project but it wasn’t clear about leaving Patagonia free of other dams. What about future projects in Patagonia?
KENNEDY: Chile can become fully energy independent without building another large conventional hydroelectric dam on its rivers. The technology is there. The resources are there. The investors are there. Chile’s future can be secured with non-conventional renewables and energy efficiency. The Baker, the Pascua, the Futaleufú, the Puelo, the Cuervo: these rivers can all be preserved and Chile can still have a secure energy future without turning to coal or diesel or fracking. Other projects may be proposed in Patagonia, but they are likely going to have a difficult time being approved after what we’ve seen with HidroAysén.
After the HidroAysen fight, what will now be your next priority in Chile?
The Futaleufú is a top priority, it is one of the most remarkable rivers I have ever seen and I consider myself lucky for having been able to spend time there. The new Futaleufú Riverkeeper group is working now to safeguard the river from future plans to dam it, working with communities both in Chile and in Argentina where the river begins. Other rivers like the Puelo and the Cuervo already have hydroelectric projects in the pipeline, despite overwhelming resistance from the communities who want to protect their families and their homes. In the U.S., we have the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which provides permanent legal protection for our rivers, while still allowing recreational and local economic activities. Other countries have similar laws. There is nothing like that in Chile, and so no river is really safe. These rivers are the lifeblood of the people who live by them, and they can make Chile a leader in ecotourism and sustainable agriculture, but in order to do so, Chile will have to find ways to keep them protected from massive dams.
Do you think the rejection of the HidroAysen project is also an important step for Chilean environmental law?
The Committee of Ministers’ decision about HidroAysén is absolutely important. It shows that the government will uphold its environmental laws and policies. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is. Chile has a variety of institutions to protect the environment such as the SEA (environmental impact assessment system), the courts, the superintendencia, and the ministry. But if the laws are not upheld, those institutions’ effectiveness is hurt and the trust that people have in those institutions is hurt. This is true anywhere, in any country. Having good laws is one thing; upholding them is another. The HidroAysén decision proves that this government is serious about upholding the law. And that is encouraging.
Chile needs energy, what then is the energy solution for the country?
Many studies have been published over the past few years –and by a variety of sources—which prove that Chile has enough resources for non-conventional renewable energy and energy efficiency to more than meet its future energy needs. Many of these resources are already cost-competitive with conventional energy, even though just a few years ago they were seen as “too expensive.” For example, in Chile you have solar projects competing on the spot market, without any feed-in-tariff or other supporting policy. That makes Chile truly unique! It is evidence of the strength of the potential here. In addition, storage solutions to address intermittency in solar and wind projects are being developed, which would work well with geothermal energy to complement solar and wind. I think soon we’ll see that all of these elements will work together to provide “the solution,” as you say, “for the country.”
Another important point is that renewables have a number of other benefits that conventional energies cannot claim: according to a recent study by ACERA and NRDC they produce more jobs, they contribute more to the GDP, they reduce more emissions and they have more public health benefits than large hydro or coal or diesel plants.
Yvon Chouinard from Patagonia spoke at Universidad de Chile last year and he pointed out how there’s not a single large dam on the planet that makes sense economically if the companies building them also had to price in the cost of eventually taking the dams out once they are no longer generating power. That is the reality of this type of energy generation. When the dams reach the end of their working lives, the corporations either leave or declare bankruptcy and usually just leave these massive impoundments.
In the United States, what other initiatives are you working on?
In the U.S. the move to a clean energy future is still being throttled by the oil and gas industries. We are winning against coal after a very long fight, and the President has just proposed new carbon standards that should help clean up the energy sector. But oil and gas are still incredible powerful players. A huge concern right now is stopping the spread of fracking, which impacts local communities and contaminates their water supplies and destroys their ecosystems. Non-conventional renewable energies hold tremendous potential but we need to first get Washington to put the right policies into place. Like Chile, we have made important steps but we still have a ways to go.
Photo of Futaleufu River, by Jimmy Langman/Patagon Journal

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