Delicate Balance

In the struggle to make inroads against Big Oil and Coal the renewable energy industry on occasion meets with obstacles from the unlikeliest sources. For example, an attempt to build an off-shore wind farm in the North Atlantic has met with considerable opposition from a group of wealthy individuals who have formed the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The grounds of their opposition are, surprisingly enough, a presumed concern for the environment and the wildlife that will be impacted by the wind generators. Now, we can debate the question of whether this group is really concerned about the environment and/or the wildlife — the wealthy seldom seem to be. It’s quite possible that they simply don’t want to look out of their picture windows from their ocean-side estates and see a plethora of whirling propellers. But that point is moot.

The fact remains there are serious and sober concerns on the part of a great many people about the consequences of placing wind generators or solar collectors in certain parts of the world. A thoughtful article by Tom Zeller in “The Blog” published by HuffPost recently attempted to spell out the problems. In the midst of a very thorough and balanced analysis, Zeller made the following remarks that seem to present the strongest case for continuing to develop alternative energy at the risk of endangering wildlife and even the environment:

“Compared to the thousands of birds and fish and other critters that have been offered up as collateral damage in the nation’s thirst for oil, or the saturation of local wildlife and habitats with mercury and other poisons that arise from coal-fired power — not to mention the widely documented impacts of fossil fuels on human health and the global climate — some might argue that a fair bit more local fauna could be sacrificed before the tradeoffs of renewable energy proved worrisome.”

And that’s the issue: it is a question of trade-offs. The possible harm to the environment and to wildlife in the area of Nantucket must be balanced against the benefits, especially in light of the alternatives to renewable energy which have a terrible history of destruction to both wildlife and the environment, not to mention human health. It would appear to be the lesser of evils. But the issue will be settled in the courts and it will be most interesting to see how the judgment comes down, given the considerable weight the opponents to the wind farm in that region of the world can bring to bear.

Not so in the Mojave desert, however, where Bright Source has already begun to develop the country’s largest solar facility. The issue here is the danger to the desert tortoise and it has already cost Bright Source $56 million to try (not altogether successfully)  to protect the animal through relocation. This has not satisfied many critics who want clean energy but are unwilling to put any creature at risk in the process. Again, it is a delicate balance and one that humans have not shown themselves adept at managing in the past. As a species we seem to prefer intellectual extremes to the middle and would rather lean left or right rather than to balance upright.

But it is encouraging that steps to produce clean energy are being taken slowly and with every possible attempt to do as little damage as possible to the environment and to wildlife. Clearly, some damage is inevitable — though they seem to rotate at a snail’s speed, the tips of the giant wind generators, for example, travel at 100 MPH and there aren’t many birds that can avoid being clipped by one of those blades from time to time. But, given our increasing demand for energy, how much damage is acceptable — especially in light of the certainty of damage to both wildlife and the environment from such things as oil spills and the discharge from burning coal? That is the question.

Political Games

A good chess player sees several moves ahead and plans his attack accordingly. A good politician sees his or her upcoming election (and very little beyond) and plans accordingly. Obama is an astute politician, though he has been a disappointing President. He sees far enough ahead to know that rising gas prices will cost him votes in November, so he plans accordingly: he announces his “full support” of the Keystone XL pipeline and “boasted Thursday that drilling, baby, drilling was a key part of his overall energy strategy.” This according to a recent Yahoo News release. How sad.

One would have hoped that this President could see far enough ahead to realize that domestic drilling will lead to more oil spills and the destruction of more wilderness, not to lower gas prices — certainly not before November. Those gas prices do not depend on domestic oil supplies anyway. They depend on factors well beyond our control, like the demand for oil in China and India, or the uncertainty in the Middle East. But gas is predicted to cost $4.00 a gallon very soon and polls show that Americans favor the pipeline as it will mean American jobs — at a time when 40,000 jobs in the clean energy industry are on hold awaiting some sort of commitment from this President and the Congress to something besides the worn-out energy policies that keep us on the same old path of fossil fuel dependence. In any event, President Obama has decided which side his bread is buttered on.

Predictably, the president of the National Wildlife Federation condemned Obama’s announced continuance of worn-out policies, and not surprisingly the Republicans claim it is not enough. But the fact remains that this move is typical politics-as-usual and an example of the short-term thinking that has gotten us so far down the wrong path turned in the wrong direction. We need to look at alternative, clean energies and we need the government to put its full weight behind a new and different policy, one that eliminates our dependence on fossil fuels and does not threaten more of the wilderness or lead to further oil spills and leaks. And the Keystone XL pipeline project is a mistake of the first order.

It will be interesting to see if Obama’s game plays out as he thinks it will, winning him some votes in November, or whether it will cost him enough votes from those of his supporters who hoped for a more enlightened energy policy from a man who said all the right things before he became President. It is a dangerous game, as he may lose the election. But not nearly as dangerous as the larger game of “drill, baby, drill” that sounds so familiar and increases the disillusionment of so many who hoped for more from this man. The larger game results inevitably in further destruction of the planet and increased oil dependence — a game we already know how to play, and one where everyone eventually loses.