Every energy source comes with its own set of problems that give rise to a passionate opposition. In the United States today, we see it with shale gas and the anti-fracking movement. In Britain, Australia and other countries where wind farms have proliferated across rural landscapes, we see fierce anti-wind campaigns gaining strength.
Like gas fracking, there are numerous vexing issues (of a different nature) associated with wind turbines. But campaigners against fracking and wind power have something in common: They both exploit and distort science to advance their agendas. Of course, someone like James Delingpole, being the buffoonish demagogue he is, would be the last to recognize this. So it’s amusing that what he criticizes enviros for is exactly what he’s guilty of himself. The energy writer Robert Bryce is not a court jester like Delingpole, but he is guilty of selective citation in this recent one-sided column that suggests there are serious health effects from wind turbine noise.
Still, the assortment of maladies that have been attributed to wind farms is pretty fascinating. I explore the phenomena of “wind turbine syndrome” over at Discover. Is it real or just a lot of hot air? Have a read and let me know what you think at Discover or here.
It’s not in the headlines or on the evening news, but there’s a big story that some people are discussing. And it’s going to get bigger and matter way more than the heat waves and extreme weather that everyone in climate circles is buzzing about this summer.
To catch up on this story, you should read the series of posts in July by Walter Russell Mead, which he has titled, The Energy Revolution. From part one:
A world energy revolution is underway and it will be shaping the realities of the 21st century when the Crash of 2008 and the Great Stagnation that followed only interest historians. A new age of abundance for fossil fuels is upon us. And the center of gravity of the global energy picture is shifting from the Middle East to”¦ North America.
In part two, Mead writes that, “we are now entering a time when energy abundance will be an argument for continued American dynamism.” The bright future for America he foresees is based on this:
By some estimates, the United States has more oil than Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran combined, and Canada may have even more than the United States. A GAO report released last May (pdf link can be found here) estimates that up to the equivalent of 3 trillion barrels of shale oil may lie in just one of the major potential US energy production sites. If half of this oil is recoverable, US reserves in this one deposit are roughly equal to the known reserves of the rest of the world combined.
Mead’s posts (he is now up to part 3) follow a report published in June by Leonard Maugeri titled, “Oil: The Next Revolution.” Skeptics of Maugeri’s bullish analysis might point out that he is a former oil industry executive. He is currently a Research Fellow of the Geopolitics of Energy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The Project, incidentally, is funded by BP.
Be that as it is, Maugeri’s analysis has convinced George Monbiot that the world is not about to run out of oil anytime soon. His recent Guardian column on the report is headlined: “We were wrong on peak oil. There’s enough to fry us all.”
A more guarded outlook of the projected “energy abundance” (including the implications for climate change) is offered by energy policy expert Michael Levi in the current issue of Foreign Policy. For example, Levi writes:
As a mere matter of scale, projections that the United States will reclaim the title of world’s largest oil producer are entirely plausible, though hardly guaranteed.
Last week, Levi was one of the assembled experts for a panel at the New America Foundation called, “Scrutinizing a Potential New Golden Age of Oil, and What it Could Mean for the Next President.”
At his Foreign Policy blog, journalist Steve LeVine (who convened the New America panel) writes:
A growing number of key energy analysts say that technological advances and high oil prices are leading to a revolution in global oil. Rather than petroleum scarcity, we are seeing into a flood of new oil supplies from some pretty surprising places, led by the United States and Canada, these analysts say.
LeVine’s post is titled, “The Era of Oil Abundance.”
You getting the picture?
Now this is not exactly news to those who have been following stories like this (in the NYT) and this (in the WSJ). And there’s the new gas age already well underway, of which The Economist takes stock of in its current issue. Combined, these developments have me recalling this Salon piece from Michael Lind last year, which begins:
Are we living at the beginning of the Age of Fossil Fuels, not its final decades? The very thought goes against everything that politicians and the educated public have been taught to believe in the past generation. According to the conventional wisdom, the U.S. and other industrial nations must undertake a rapid and expensive transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy for three reasons: The imminent depletion of fossil fuels, national security and the danger of global warming.
What if the conventional wisdom about the energy future of America and the world has been completely wrong?
If this proves to be the case, then will it really be–to borrow from James Hansen–game over for the climate? Faced with such a prospect, might we soon be forced to take geoengineering seriously? Oliver Morton of The Economist is at work developing this argument. I think he’s on to something here:
At a recent meeting Rob Socolow suggested that we should divide the world into people who do or don’t think the risks of climate change are an urgent matter and people who do or don’t think decarbonisation is difficult (pdf). A lot of the green movement is in the do/don’t quadrant ““ do take climate change seriously, don’t think getting rid of fossil fuels is all that difficult (“just needs political will,” dontcha know). People opposed to current or intensified action on climate (sceptics, lukewarmers, status-quo-ers, whatever) are in the don’t/do quadrant ““ don’t see climate change as a serious risk, do think decarbonisation is difficult, or at least costly.
Like Rob, I am in the do/do quadrant. I do think climate change poses serious risks, and I do think decarbonisation is difficult. That is why I think it is worth taking the possibility of geoengineering seriously enough to see how well it might be done.
If a new era of oil abundance is truly upon us, we may have no choice.
most famous for his role in being one of the first to sequence the human genome and for his role in creating the first cell with a synthetic genome in 2010.
The discussion is wide-ranging. At one point, Venter talks about his work on the synthetic life front, and how he’s now involved in trying to create a cell to “harness photosynthesis.” Here’s the idea:
We’re trying to coax our synthetic cells to do what’s happened to middle America, which is store far more fat than they actually were designed to do, so that we can harness it all as an energy source and use it to create gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel straight from carbon dioxide and sunlight. This would shift the carbon equation so we’re recycling CO2 instead of taking new carbon out of the ground and creating still more CO2. But it has to be done on a massive scale to have any real impact on the amount of CO2 we’re putting into the atmosphere, let alone recovering from the atmosphere.
Hence the headline for the Wired interview, “Craig Venter wants to solve the world’s energy crisis.”
What’s interesting to me is Venter’s mindset, which views science as the primary means to solve the world’s greatest challenges. No doubt this perspective is widely shared, but it is also at odds with those (including many scientists) who instead emphasize social change. For example, on the issue of global sustainability, technological solutions don’t seem to have much of a place in the tool box that’s featured in major scientific reports and at conferences. Rather, what we often hear is the need to reduce consumption, population, and economic growth.
I’m not suggesting that one approach should be chosen over the other, but it does seem that our conversations on energy and climate-related issues minimize (and often caution against) the use of technology to better humanity and the environment. On that note, I’ll conclude with the final exchange in the Wired interview.
Wired: I want to end with a big question: In 1990, Carl Sagan wrote that “we live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” That seems even more true today. Do you think we respect science enough as a society?
Venter: I think the new anti-intellectualism that’s showing up in politics today is a symptom of our not discussing these issues enough. We don’t discuss how our society is now 100 percent dependent on science for its future. We need new scientific breakthroughs””sometimes to overcome the scientific breakthroughs of the past. A hundred years ago oil sounded like a great discovery. You could burn it and run engines off it. I don’t think anybody anticipated that it would actually change the atmosphere of our planet. Because of that we have to come up with new approaches. We just passed the 7 billion population mark. In 12 years, we’re going to reach 8 billion. If we let things run their natural course, we’ll have massive pandemics, people starving. Without science I don’t see much hope for humanity.
At Grist, there is a box with a rotating set of five images that highlights content from the site. When I went over there recently, my eye gravitated to the colorful pictures in the box, including one with this subheadline for a blog post:
Germany aims to trade nukes for a fully renewable power system. Sane countries should follow suit.
What makes this especially insane is that it comes from a person who writes frequently about climate change as the biggest threat facing humanity.
In the actual world we live in, when a country scraps nuclear power, renewables aren’t an equal substitute. The real tradeoff is higher CO2 emissions. That will remain the case for decades, while Germany’s grand experiment is underway. The Grist writer who worries deeply about climate change surely knows this. Yet he suggests that “sane countries” should follow Germany’s example.
Even Joe Romm, who is no fan of nuclear power, advises:
Given the need to keep climate forcings as low as possible, I wouldn’t shutter existing nukes until the clean energy replacements are online, and would prefer to spend big bucks to make them safer.
Anti-nuclear greens who are concerned most about global warming might want to think about something four leading UK environmentalists recently stated:
As writers and thinkers who are interested in and concerned with environmental issues, our job is to assess the technological and policy options on climate change as objectively as possible. Independently of each other, we have all reached the conclusion in recent years that the gravity of the climate crisis necessitates a re-examination of deeply-held objections still shared by many in the green movement towards nuclear power, including, until recently some of our own number.
On a related note, I’ll point out another highlighted image rotating at the Grist carousel. It’s also rather odd placement for an ad.
Like the nuclear/renewable swap, this is for people living in fantasyland.
UPDATE: Be sure to read this piece by Spencer Weart at Yale Environment 360, entitled “Shunning nuclear power will lead to a warmer world.” It went up the same day as my post.
Greens who care most about global warming are in a tough spot. One of the biggest climate killers is coal, a 19th century fuel that may bake the planet well into the 21st century. As Jeff Goodell notes in Rolling Stone,
We still burn nearly a billion tons of it a year in America, almost all of it to generate electricity.
Even still, Goodell argues that
coal is dying in America, and everyone knows it. In the largest sense, it’s being killed off by technological progress and the rising awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy. Even the biggest coal boosters have long admitted that coal is a dying industry ““ the fight has always been over how fast and how hard the industry will fall.
This has to cheer greens, who haven’t had much to cheer about on the climate change front. Then again, maybe not. For as Goodell notes:
The real dagger in coal’s heart is natural gas ““ more accurately, cheap natural gas from “unconventional” sources like shale and other porous rocks. Thanks to new technologies like horizontal drilling and fracking, we are suddenly awash in gas, and prices are lower than they’ve been in decade. Drilling and fracking is its own kind of nightmare, but for better or worse, one incontestable consequence of cheap gas is that it has driven many electricity generators to turn off the coal plants and fire up the natural gas generators instead.
Meanwhile, the natural gas revolution is stunting the growth potential of a climate-friendly source of energy: Nuclear power. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
The U.S. nuclear industry seemed to be staging a comeback several years ago, with 15 power companies proposing as many as 29 new reactors. Today, only two projects are moving off the drawing board.
What killed the revival wasn’t last year’s nuclear accident in Japan, nor was it a soft economy that dented demand for electricity. Rather, a shale-gas boom flooded the U.S. market with cheap natural gas, offering utilities a cheaper, less risky alternative to nuclear technology.
“It’s killed off new coal and now it’s killing off new nuclear,” says David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy Inc., a power-generation company based in Princeton, NJ. “Gas has come along at just the right time to upset everything.”
Across the country, utilities are turning to natural gas to generate electricity, with 258 plants expected to be built from 2011 through 2015, federal statistics indicate.
Anyway, one thing’s for sure: The natural gas revolution has arrived, and it’s upending the energy/climate debate.
Despite the immense human tragedy of the earthquake/tsunami that struck Japan one year ago, many media stories in the West this past week have focused on the Fukushima meltdown, which led Mark Lynas to tweet:
I find the total silence about the 20,000 victims killed by the tsunami a year ago horrifying, current nuclear angst out of all proportion.
On a related note, because nuclear power is part of the energy/climate debate, George Monbiot recently tweeted:
How come climate change ceases to be an issue as soon as someone needs to make the case for abandoning nuclear?
That is a curious thing, isn’t it? Which leads me to this essay by Michael Lemonick, titled, “No Nukes? Only if you believe in magic.” It is a wry, concisely argued deconstruction of all the proffered “magic” solutions that keep the climate change debate stuck in the realm of fantasy. After reading that, waltz on over to Dot Earth for some historical perspective by Spencer Weart on why “nuclear fear feeds back on itself” in society.
Then there are the regulatory and cost issues that still bedevil nuclear power. The Economist, in an introduction to a new special report, writes:
In any country independent regulation is harder when the industry being regulated exists largely by government fiat. Yet, as our special report this week explains, without governments private companies would simply not choose to build nuclear-power plants. This is in part because of the risks they face from local opposition and changes in government policy (seeing Germany’s nuclear-power stations, which the government had until then seen as safe, shut down after Fukushima sent a chilling message to the industry). But it is mostly because reactors are very expensive indeed. Lower capital costs once claimed for modern post-Chernobyl designs have not materialised. The few new reactors being built in Europe are far over their already big budgets. And in America, home to the world’s largest nuclear fleet, shale gas has slashed the costs of one of the alternatives; new nuclear plants are likely only in still-regulated electricity markets such as those of the south-east.
While not giving up on nuclear power, the piece argues that the much anticipated “promise of a global [nuclear] transformation is gone.”
So where does all this leave us? If you don’t believe in magic, and you’re not waiting anymore for a nuclear renaissance, what’s the quickest (and most realistic) path to a low-carbon energy economy?
When I was a kid growing up on Long Island, anti-nuclear sentiment rose to a crescendo in the early to mid-1980s, just as the Shoreham nuclear power plant on the Island’s eastern end was nearing completion. If you know your history, you know what happened around this time. As Wikipedia explains:
The [Shoreham] plant faced considerable public opposition after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. There were large protests and two dozen local groups opposed the plant. In 1981, 43 percent of Long Islanders opposed the plant; by 1986, that number had risen to 74 percent.
In 1989, the utility that built Shoreham conceded to the politics of the day and agreed not to open the plant. But the deal LILCO (Long Island Lighting Company) made with New York State also called for much of Shoreham’s $6 billion construction cost to be passed down to Long Island residents. (Long Islanders are still paying this debt off.) In 1992, the Shoreham plant was dismantled.
Twenty years later, New York is embroiled in another heated nuclear power debate, this one involving the future of the Indian Point nuclear plant, which generates 2,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power all of Boston and Baltimore, with juice to spare. The facility sits along the Hudson River, 28 miles north of New York City. As with Shoreham, similar concerns about safety and emergency evacuation have animated a campaign calling for Indian Point’s closure. Post 9/11, the specter of terrorism has been added to the mix. Throw in the Fukushima disaster and you can imagine the potency of the anti-Indian Point message.
There is, however, a strong argument to be made in favor of keeping Indian Point in operation.
The two sides of the debate came together last night at Columbia University’s law school. The panel discussion, which I attended, was represented by two anti-Indian Point environmentalists and two pro-Indian Point advocates. Each side made forceful, compelling cases for their respective positions. I felt that the anti-Indian Point team was least convincing on the economic and energy issues (as in, where will NYC get the 20 percent of electricity that comes from Indian Point, and at what cost to the consumer?). I felt the pro-Indian Point team was least convincing on the safety issue (they played down concerns about terrorism, fuel containment, and orderly mass evacuation).
We don’t live in a world with no [energy] impacts; we don’t live in a world of free and cheap energy. We know there are tradeoffs. We have to make tough decisions. What risk do we want to take? That’s the challenge.
On the other side of the podium, Arthur Kremer, a former New State Assemblyman and currently the Chairman of the Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance, said emotion and fear shaped the public discourse on nuclear power. On Indian Point, he asserted:
The debate has been short on facts and honesty.
The media, it goes without saying, plays an important role in the public’s understanding of nuclear power and related safety and risk issues. Alas, the public’s mind is most concentrated in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, when perspective narrows and the coverage is often breathless. (As for those economic and environmental tradeoffs, it would nice if there was more discussion of them, especially now that countries like Germany are providing a real-world case study.) Anniversaries of nuclear disasters are also a time when press coverage spikes and the public tunes in. We are entering such a moment now and the signs (for level-headed coverage) are not encouraging, assert Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the California-based Breakthrough Institute, at Slate:
With an eye to the first anniversary of the tsunami that killed 20,000 people and caused a partial meltdown at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, a recently formed nongovernmental organization called Rebuild Japan released a report earlier this week on the nuclear incident to alarming media coverage.
“Japan Weighed Evacuating Tokyo in Nuclear Crisis,” screamed the New York Times headline, above an article by Martin Fackler that claimed, “Japan teetered on the edge of an even larger nuclear crisis than the one that engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.”
Nordhaus and Shellenberger go on to argue that the Times story credulously peddles the nuclear doomsday was narrowly averted slant of the Japanese NGO’s post-disaster report. Journalists at other esteemed outlets are viewing Fukushima through a similar lens. At the New Yorker, Evan Osnos writes:
Good fortune is not the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about Fukushima these days. But it is, in fact, one of the clearest””and most troubling””lessons to be drawn from the Fukushima story: plain old luck, along with a colossal dose of heroism and quick-thinking, prevented the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns from wounding Japan even more thoroughly than they did.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger question that take. In their Slate piece, they note:
The same day the New York Times published its story, PBS broadcast a Frontline documentary about the Fukushima meltdown that invites a somewhat different interpretation. In an interview conducted for that program, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan suggests that the fear of cascading plant failures was nothing more than panicked speculation among some of his advisers. “I asked many associates to make forecasts,” Kan explained to PBS, “and one such forecast was a worst-case scenario. But that scenario was just something that was possible, it didn’t mean that it seemed likely to happen.”
Nordhaus and Shellenberger suggest that the media’s emphasis on the potentially worst outcomes of Fukushima skewers the reporting and inflates the risk associated with nuclear power. Indeed, this is a criticism that journalists are already acquainted with, says Osnos in his New Yorker article:
When the [ Fukushima] anniversary arrives in two weeks, reporters and analysts will note correctly that nobody has died so far from the Fukushima meltdowns (this, of course, does not refer to the tsunami). One of the questions will be whether the media overplayed the dangers””whether it scared people away from nuclear power.
In light of what happened on Long Island two decades ago and the debate that is now playing out over the Indian Point power plant, that is not an unreasonable question to ask.
UPDATE: Bryan Walsh at Time has a related piece I didn’t see until after I posted. Taking stock of the one-year Fukushima anniversary stories starting to come out, he says that,
nearly a year after the event, the question still remains: was the Fukushima meltdown that dangerous?
You may have heard, as Scientific American reports, that the “U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted to allow construction of two new nuclear reactors” in Georgia. It’s a pretty big deal, since Jimmy Carter was President the last time a commercial reactor was approved.
As the LA Times notes, the new Georgia plant
is supposed to have all of the technology and safeguards to avoid a meltdown like the one that occurred at Fukushima, which was hit by a tsunami after a massive earthquake and lost electrical power to keep its reactor cool. The Westinghouse system is supposed to be able to endure a complete blackout and safely shut down the reactor with passive cooling systems, said company spokesman Vaughn Gilbert.
Of course, for those who are opposed to nuclear power based on safety concerns, what happened at Fukushima remains frightful proof of the dangers. But as George Monbiot argued in a series of columns last year, the disaster could also serve as an argument for the technology’s relative safety.
Over at my latest Yale Forum post, Nullius in Verba makes a similar case. I often don’t see eye to eye with Nullius, but in this comment he shows the skewed risk perception many have of nuclear power:
Fukushima was actually an excellent demonstration of just how safe nuclear energy actually is.
Let’s compare it to something concrete: is your house “safe”? When you sit in home, are you nervous about having tons of brick and concrete suspended a few feet above your head? You would probably say “yes, of course it’s safe”, but let’s judge it by the same standard we judge nuclear power.
You claim your house is “safe”, but if you hit it with a magnitude 9 earthquake, and then shortly after smash a 30 foot high wall of water moving at a hundred miles an hour into it, will it still be standing? Or will the whole thing collapse on top of you?
In Japan, something like 10,000 people sat in their “safe” houses died. And left a landscape strewn with rubble which is going to cost billions to clean up. And a tsunami leaves the land tainted with salt, and no crops will grow until it is gone.
So is a nuclear power station that was still standing and killed less than a handful more dangerous than houses which collapsed and killed thousands? Or, if you want to look at it that way, more dangerous than building thousands of houses on an island prone to earthquakes and tsunamis?
The thinking appears to be that it is, because within a few days of the disaster, none of the news reports mentioned the tens of thousands left homeless or burying their dead, it was all about the nuclear reactor. The tiniest trace of radioactivity anywhere was picked up and breathlessly reported around the world, although the fact that raw sewage was floating down the streets was not. Sewage is more dangerous, it kills more people, but they’re more scared of the radioactivity.
So that’s why I say “relatively safe”. It’s safe, relative to all the other risky things that we consider safe. It’s not absolutely safe ““ nothing is ““ but the risks are far lower than for many other dangers that we consider it acceptable to take.
It would be interesting to know where the anti-nuclear denial of science comes from, political elites, or perhaps the coal mining industry? How should science communicators talk about nuclear energy to overcome this block? Or should we sit back and do nothing, and wait for energy prices to skyrocket before offering it again?
It’s an interesting comparison, isn’t it?
China will take over full ownership over a Canadian oil sands project for the first time after Athabasca Oil Sands Corp announced Tuesday it sold the remaining 40 percent of the MacKay River oil sands development to PetroChina for US $673 million.
The deal continues a trend that has seen China’s state-owned oil companies invest billions of dollars in exploration or production ventures in Canada, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.
Elsewhere is another way of saying the United States, as this other bit of news suggests:
Showing that it isn’t worried about the upswell of angst over hydraulic fracking technology, the Chinese government, through state-controlled Sinopec, today struck a deal with Devon Energy to buy into five prospective new exploration areas in the U.S.
The deal, which includes $900 million in cash upfront and a promise of $1.6 billion in the years ahead to cover drilling and development, gives the Chinese a 33% stake in five of Devon’s fields, and a front row seat to what is effectively the second wave of development of U.S. shale assets. The areas in question include the Tuscaloosa in Louisiana, the Niobrara in Colorado, the Mississippian in Devon’s home state of Oklahoma, the Utica in Ohio and the Michigan basin.
The second wave? Does that mean it washes over us irrespective of the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline? Has anybody told environmentalists this? And what about climate activists? Who worries you more at this point: Mitt Romney or China? Oh, Never mind.
Back to that second wave, and how it’s being funded from Chinese cash, see this 2011 must-read from Jonathan Thompson. He writes that, over the last decade,
China has emerged as one of our biggest customers; U.S. exports to China have increased 460 percent since 2000. Compared to British, Canadian or Australian multinational corporations, Asian companies still have a minuscule investment in Western resources. But over the last year, as much of Asia scrambles out of the global recession unscathed and the U.S. continues to wallow, Chinese, Indian and even former Soviet-bloc companies have bought into American oil and gas fields, molybdenum mines and more.
The story of fossil fuels as a much sought after global commodity is the big climate story that climate-concerned activists and bloggers willfully ignore.
Yesterday’s announcement by the Obama Administration to postpone a final decision on the Keystone pipeline until after the 20012 Presidential has triggered much chatter and insta-analysis. There are two smart takes worth pointing out. The first is this NYT op-ed by Michael Levi, a climate and energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, which I summarized in this tweet:
@levi_m has Fri op-ed that argues anti-keystone victory is triumph of BANANA, and bodes ill for U.S. clean energy econ.
BANANA, for those of you not familiar with the acronym, means “Build absolutely nothing anywhere, near anything.”
While I understand the larger aims of the McKibben-led pipeline protest, I am in agreement with Levi that green NIMBYism represents a real threat to long-term clean energy and climate goals. I’ve previously made that argument here. As Levi notes in his piece:
The anti-Keystone movement originally focused its message on climate change. The argument was simple: increased greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s oil sands would be devastating for the planet. But that message was not enough. So campaigners joined forces with an unusual set of allies: Nebraska landowners and politicians, many of them pro-oil Republicans, who simply did not want a pipeline running through their backyards. That approach appears to have paid off. The State Department has justified its new delay in deciding on the pipeline application by announcing that it will be conducting an assessment of alternative pipeline routes. That rationale speaks squarely to the local Nebraska opposition, and says nothing about the climate concerns.
The success of the anti-Keystone coalition may well trigger the law of unintended consequences, Levi cautions:
…oil pipelines are hardly the only pieces of energy infrastructure that will require government approval in coming years. This is particularly true if the United States wants to build a new clean-energy economy.
The country has already seen strong opposition to offshore wind energy in Massachusetts, including from environmental activists and local landowners, on the grounds that it will ruin spectacular ocean views. Solar plants will need to be built in sunny deserts, but local opponents continue to insist that the landscape blight would be intolerable. New long distance transmission lines will have to cross multiple states in order to bring that power to the places that need it most. Once again, though, a patchwork of local concerns and inconsistent state regulation is already making the task exceedingly difficult.
Energy experts often note that it would be impossible to recreate today’s energy infrastructure, given the intensity of opposition to pretty much any new development. The environmentalists’ victory against Keystone XL will only reinforce that judgment. But realizing their broader vision “” a low-carbon economy that enhances the nation’s security and helps avoid dangerous climate change “” will require defeating the same sort of local opposition that they have just embraced.
Now on to Bryan Walsh’s article in Time, which astutely observes:
Of course, Keystone presented a unique opportunity in the mind-numbingly complex world of climate politics to focus public attention””and fear””on a single project that could be stopped. It was a pressure point, and McKibben and company applied a perfect Vulcan nerve pinch on it. They deserve to feel good
But Keystone may have been a special case””and a throwback. The local concerns in Nebraska had less to do with the climate risks of oil sands crude than fear of a pipeline spill into the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska. That’s a real concern””but it’s local, not the same as the global nature of the climate threat. As veterans of the environmental movement know, it’s a lot easier to get people motivated to stop development than it is to organize them to push for something new. And sometimes that anti-development feeling can backfire as well””look at some of the resistance to new wind turbines, solar projects and power lines that could connect to renewable sources.
So what comes next for McKibben and company? Walsh offers this advice:
If the climate movement is going to make a real difference, it needs to mobilize the same level of popular and political passion towards developing renewable energy, spending more government money on energy research and development and passing climate legislation. This is hardly a secret””there were protests and campaigns for the climate bill in 2009 and 2010, and McKibben’s own 350.org campaign is about a lot more than just stopping fossil fuel development. But I’ve rarely seen the sheer energy towards technocratic policies like cap-and-trade or renewable energy mandates that I’ve seen when visiting Americans who are vehemently opposed to hydrofracking, for example. Protests and passion may have helped stop the Keystone pipeline, but will it be enough to build a new energy economy?
Good question. I think the answer will start to emerge by the time the final decision on the pipeline is made soon after the 2012 Presidential election.