The federal government approved the nation’s first offshore wind farm, in Nantucket Sound. Meanwhile in the Gulf of Mexico, five times more oil than previously estimated is gushing from beneath a collapsed drilling platform, sending about 210,000 gallons of oil per day drifting toward wetlands and beaches.
Put these two together, and you get this question. Which would you rather see built off of your beaches here in the Chesapeake region? Drilling platforms for oil and gas? Or wind turbines?
If you say neither, I would ask: Do you drive a car? Burn natural gas in your stove? Use electricity to boot up your computer? If so, you have a responsibility to think about where your energy comes from, and what you are willing to sacrifice to get that energy.
It’s a relevant question, because the Obama Administration is proposing to move ahead with the lifting of a federal ban on drilling off the East Coast. That would allow exploration for oil and gas off of Virginia and Maryland and the opening of the Chesapeake Bay, and could potentially expose our region’s tourist areas and the Bay itself to catastrophic oil spills like the one in Louisiana. Picture this vast black blanket washing ashore in Virginia Beach or Ocean City.
Meanwhile, developers are proposing to build large wind farms off of Ocean City, Maryland, and Delaware, as well as up and down the East Coast. Yesterday’s announcement by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that the federal government is approving the hotly-contested Cape Wind project in Massachusetts could open the door for several more offshore wind farms. These farms generate clean electricity, but frequently draw objections because of their size and aesthetic impact. The turbines can be 40 stories tall, and lit at night. But they can look much smaller from shore, depending on how far out into the ocean they are built.
“This will be the first of many projects up and down the Atlantic coast,” Salazar said at a news conference.
To be fair, of course, there are some major differences between oil platforms and offshore wind farms. For example, wind farms generate electricity that powers homes and businesses, and must often be backed up by natural-gas fired power stations that kick in when the wind dies down. Meanwhile, oil drilling produces fuel primarily for vehicles and transportation.
But the big picture remains the same: There is no free energy. Our modern society requires fuel from somewhere, and it always involves compromises and impacts. Even conserving energy – the most low-impact route-- requires some sacrifice.
So what are you willing to tolerate to turn on the lights in the morning? What will you swallow so that you can start your car?
I tell you what I absolutely do not want forced down my throat: BP and other oil companies making a lot of money by rolling the dice with pur public beaches and natural resources. Wind turbines, improperly placed, can certainly be an aesthetic issue. But that's a different order of seriousness than an oil spill issue.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photos from freefoto.com and istockphoto)