Fishing for the Cause of the Great Blue Crab Comeback
Oil Spill Is A Political and Economic Mess, As Well As An Environmental Disaster

Pick Your Beach View: Wind Turbines? Or Oil Drilling Platforms?

Windturbine Two big news items this morning.

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.

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By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photos from freefoto.com and istockphoto)

Comments

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I would honestly rather have a single oil platform than a "farm" of wind turbines. For better or worse, petroleum is still the most efficient, by far, producer of energy known to man. On the other hand, wind turbines barely produce as much energy over their useful life as is required to construct, place and maintain them.

The likelihood of catastrophic spills is certainly not zero, but they are quite rare. The impact of one is awful, I'm sure. Yet, in my heart, I must account for our country's history of safety around oil production. And that is what informs my opinion.

Jose, you are obviously brainwashed by big oil. Other countries have been using alternative fuel sources for decades and none of them are as beholdent to the Middle East as we are. As wind and solar become more mainstream, I'm sure the cost of maintainence, etc... will become reasonable. Plus there is no way they will cost more than one oil spill. In case you didn't see the number, it's over $100 million already - and you and I will end up paying for it with no return benefit. Finally as a resident of Florida who lives 15 miles from the beach and may experience the effects of the recent spill, I wholly disagree with your attitude that the rare spills are worth the risk to animals, humans and our beaches.

Whirl, baby, whirl! Definitely better than Drill, baby, spill...

I have to say I wholeheartedly agree with Mary and Joe on this one. Even if you set aside the issue of oil spills (which, as the Louisiana example shows, are a major issue), shopping around for more places to drill for oil will not make our country any less dependent on oil. Just the opposite. Why not focus on fuels that do not create so much carbon dioxide pollution and environmental damage?

I'm not sure that Jose is correct in his assertion that petroleum is "by far the most efficient producer of energy known to man." More efficient than uranium? More efficient that hydroelectric?

Do you have any studies to back this up, Jose? Does anyone else out there have any statistics on this?

Tom, don't forget to add studies by respected third party groups, not by the oil companies and their lobbyists!!

Good point, Mary!

CORRECTION: Does anyone out there have any reliable figures (from government agencies or research scientists not affiliated with industry or special interest groups) that compares the efficiency of oil, wind, nuclear, solar and hydroelectric power production?

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Tom, and for refraining from name-calling.

My assertion that oil is a highly efficient way of producing power is backed up by studies on something called Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROEI), which simply compares how much energy is produced by a method with how much energy is required to produce it. http://www.eroei.com/eroei/evaluations/net-energy-list/

Reasonable people can disagree on what factors go into the production side of the equation. And certainly EROEI is not the only consideration. But if you look at the table on the link, you'll see that oil produces anywhere from 0.7 to 13.3 units of energy for every unit that is required for production. Nuclear produces on average 4 units per unit consumed, mostly because safety (while necessary) isn't free. Hydropower is pretty efficient at 11.2 in terms of production, but the energy is not portable. In other words, the electricity generated by the Hoover Dam doesn't do us any good over here on the east coast. For what it's worth, the same can be said for wind generated electricity, as well. Natural gas is portable, but it requires a strong focus on security, given that it will blow up fairly readily. Coal is portable and pretty efficient, but it is far more dangerous and has a much larger environmental impact than an oil rig.

I first heard this argument from a passionate environmentalist a few years back. Being naturally skeptical, I had to dig around on this on my own. Finding an independent, unemotional voice on this issue is difficult. These guys (http://www.eroei.com/about-us/) claim that's what they are and their work appears to be done in a neutral, unbiased manner.

Anyway, the question posed was between oil rigs and wind turbines on the Bay. I stand on my opinion that a single oil platform is preferable to a farm of wind turbines. It's more efficient from an energy production standpoint. It's a single eyesore, instead of hundreds of them.

As for alternatives, I'm all for diligently researching ways to replace oil as an energy source. I'm even interested in making our use of it more efficient, which will reduce the pollution that's created, etc. For now, though, oil is what we have to work with, for better or worse.

Thanks, Jose. I'll give that some study.

I notice that EROEI doesn't exactly say who funds the organization.

The website says: "EROEI.COM is funded from our own pockets, book sales, and the occasional donation."

Donations from whom?

Fair question, Tom.
Given that the last post on the site was from late 2009, I don't suspect they get many donations. :-)

Thank you, Jose, for providing your source of information. I'm not going to pretend that I understand the math behind some of their charts. However, I can read numbers and under the "emergy" chart, there are 6 other categories that seem to perform as well, if not slightly better than oil. I also see that they pointed out that was oil from Alaska which is, if I understand correctly, not drilled from underwater? I also doubt these calculations take into consideration the cost and energy to clean up major spills (currently $6 million per day) or the amount of oil that has been destroyed and served no benefit to anyone.

Jose, you seem to agree with us that we need to develop alternative energy but then you cave in and say we have to continue our love fest with oil??!! Can you see where that is confusing to me, especially based on the info you directed me to? How can we move forward without letting go of our oil dependency as quickly as possible? Did you happen to see the article on the EROEI site by a British scientist that says oil supplies will be gone by 2030? If that's true, we really need to get a better mindset about energy choices asap!

Mary raises some good points, Jose. Even the EROEI website includes that article about "peak oil" and the inevitable end of this fossil fuel... and pretty soon (2030 is not that far off).

How can we make the massive technological switch (from oil to post oil) needed to save our civilization from disaster if we keep spending so many of our resources focused on squeezing every last drop of petroleum out of every environmentally fragile corner of the globe?

It's just a form of procrastination, and one that has the potential to destroy some of our most beautiful and important natural resource areas. I'm thinking about the Louisiana and Chesapeake wetlands that produce so many fish and crabs, and the Assateague Island National Seashore, which is one of the most gorgeous places in the world.

Tom, reports say they treated the first bird today. He should be white and he was so covered in oil he was pure brown. Perhaps all the folks who can't give up their oil should go to Louisiana and volunteer for a few days to get a reality check on the effects of a spill. Please keep up the battle to prevent this nightmare from happening in the Bay.

Will do, Mary! Have a great weekend.

This will be my final comment on this matter.

I return to the original question: one oil drilling platform versus hundreds of windmills.

To me this is a choice between spending precious resources -- natural, human, financial - on something that will produce a negligible benefit at very high cost or on something that will produce a large benefit at a relatively modest cost. A choice between disrupting the precious Bay for years as windmills are pounded into its floor, or having a single, tightly regulated, temporary drilling platform. The effects of the Louisiana spill and the Valdez disaster were and are devastating and long-lasting. But there have been only a few major oil events in my 40+ year lifetime. Our country will rise to the occasion and clean up this mess to the best of our ability. It's what we as Americans do. But again, oil's safety record is pretty good, especially compared to coal. So, for these reasons, I stand on my answer.

Another couple of points I'd like to address. First is the notion of peak oil. Having done enough reading on the subject, I absolutely agree with its premise. The day is coming ... and it's not 2030, more like 2020 ... when we will not be able to PRODUCE enough oil to meet our needs. We must find efficient alternatives to oil.

But the key is efficiency. Not many people have a love affair with oil. But what people DO love is being able to move soy beans across the world at a price that allows a man in central Africa to feed his family. People love being able to afford a new pair of blue jeans because cotton was produced in one part of the world and turned into denim in another at a stunningly low cost. People love being able to afford to send a hospital ship to Haiti. I urge you to think about these things not as a dependency on OIL, but on a dependency on CHEAP ENERGY. When transportation costs -- now kept low by relatively cheap oil -- skyrocket, it will be the poor and vulnerable who will suffer the most.

With this in mind, I question the wisdom of spending precious resources on terribly inefficient means of power production. Instead I believe we must spend those resources on (1) maximizing the efficiency of the most efficient energy production methods and (2) finding an efficient alternative to oil.

Pat, you yourself admonished the reader not to choose "neither". So ... again ... if the only two choices are windmills (expensive, inefficient, wasteful) versus an oil platform (risky, efficient, proven), then that's a choice between two undesirable alternatives. I choose the lesser of the two evils. For me, that's an oil platform.

Mary & Pat, I truly respect your positions on this matter. There are no easy answers.

Respectfully yours,
Jose

Jose, you have been very consistent and polite in your responses which I do appreciate. Being able to debate and defend your point of view without resorting to name-calling and insults has become a lost art these days.

I certainly understand your concerns and I agree that Americans have gotten attached to affordable "things" in life. (Just FYI, some of the larger Naval vessels run on nuclear, not oil.) I still hope that we can prove you wrong and can quickly and efficiently lose our dependence on oil. I have had the pleasure in my 40 years of watching a newly hatched sea turtle make its way to the Gulf and watch baby dolphins frolick in the Intercoastal. I've had manatees swim up next to me. To think that they are all in danger now because of the spill sickens me so I hope you can understand that I do not support continued drilling in our precious waters.

Regards,

Mary

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