“Relative to the risks of coal mining and oil exploration, the downsides of offshore wind turbines seem minor.”

29 Apr 2010

When you start looking at people’s impact on the planet, it can seem that there’s no way we can win. Everything we do has some impact.

Until we convince people to scale back their lives—or until we run out of fossil fuels and are forced to—then we’ll have to make trade-offs.

USA Today editorial put things in perspective, in talking about the approval of the Cape Wind offshore wind project in Massachusetts, comparing it with our other sources of energy:

Energy production is about trade-offs. That has been painfully clear lately from the coal mine disaster in West Virginia, which killed 29, and the drilling rig accident in the Gulf of Mexico, which left 11 workers dead and an oil slick spreading toward the coastline. Every form of energy exacts a price, and extracting fossil fuels from the ground is particularly dangerous and dirty. Relative to the risks of coal mining and oil exploration [and production], the downsides of offshore wind turbines seem minor.

The drilling rig spill is a good reminder of the extremes that we’re now going to, to keep the oil flowing, and to keep the coal-fired power plants stoked up.

“Just last September, the operator of the semisubmersible rig known as the Deepwater Horizon announced it had succeeded in drilling the deepest oil well in history,” National Geographic News reported.

This reservoir is under more than 4,000 feet (1.25 kilometers) of water—and then another 6 miles (10 kilometers) of rock. I read several articles about the spill, but nobody said what caused it, and I wondered why there was this oversight.

But then I read in National Geographic News: “Now, authorities are trying to learn what went wrong on the platform.” Apparently it’s still not clear. That’s probably because the leak is so deep underwater—the same reason BP has so far been unable to stop the leak, which continues after several days.

Oil is such an idea fuel—in terms of the energy packed into a dense, easily portable liquid—that I’m afraid people will keep pushing to extremes to suck every bit of oil out that they can afford to. And as we run out of oil, the price per barrel will likely soar, making these extreme drilling operations all the more lucrative, at least for the next decade or two.

But I hope projects like Cape Wind can get approved quickly, to get things rolling with renewables. As USA Today argued: “The USA gets more than half its oil from the world market, transferring hundreds of billions of dollars every year to unfriendly regimes. The national security cost is matched or exceeded by the environmental price. Fossil fuels, which provide 84% of U.S. energy needs, contribute to global warming.”

Besides these downsides of fossil fuels, they’ve also got us hooked—addicted, even. We have to break this habit before we hit rock bottom. If we wait until renewables can compete with fossil fuels—which get all kinds of subsidies, some more obvious than others—then I’m afraid it will be too late to avoid a huge shortfall in energy.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »