USA Today: Energy’s costs meet the eyes
In the long run, the sight of wind turbines and oil slicks might serve a purpose: providing a conscience to American consumption
By Meera Subramanian
May 13, 2010
When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico on April 22, 11 men were missing and a gushing well was emptying into the sea. It happened to be Earth Day.
A week later, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced federal approval for the nation’s first offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound near Hyannis, Mass., which will turn an aquatic area the size of Manhattan into an oceanic-industrial complex with 130 massive turbines reaching 440 feet into the sky. Both are reminders that all energy comes at a price.
Regardless of one’s stance on the science of climate change — either the extent or the cause — there is no debate that we pay dearly for our energy. It costs us in barrels and kilowatt hours, and it costs us in human lives. The time has come for Americans to face head-on the unsightly ways and means of our energy sources and recognize the true cost of turning on our televisions and powering up our laptops. Wind turbines off the Cape Cod coast and oil on our southern shores mark the definitive end of the era in which our energy addiction can be satiated by sources that are out of sight and out of mind.
There are no easy choices here. Fossil fuels don’t just drive our cars. They drive our economy and will for the indefinite future. But the social and environmental costs of mining, drilling and making batteries for our hybrid cars are not evenly distributed, either within or beyond our borders.
Because of geology and politics, those who benefit from cheap and abundant energy are often far removed from sources of production, whether the North Slope of Alaska or the former mountaintops of West Virginia, let alone the Middle East. It has been easy to ignore the fact that resource extraction, especially for fossil fuels, takes a devastating toll on human life — miners buried and oil riggers lost at sea are just the latest deaths caused by our voracious quest for resources. The effects of climate change may seem abstract, but what we see in the reflective sheen of this oil spill is that our unquenchable thirst for the substance that lubricates our lives is killing us along with the ecosystems we inhabit.
In the Gulf of Mexico, however, we may have found our infinite fount. This deep-water accident has no horizon. It isn’t an oil spill in the conventional sense, where a fixed amount of fuel escapes from the hull of a ship. When this rig sank, it left behind a severed umbilical cord that had tethered it to an oil borehole reaching deep into the earth’s crust a mile below the waves. We have tapped into something we quite literally can’t control.
All this is a perfect call-and-response to Sarah Palin’s imprudent “Drill, baby, drill!” cheer. No one knows how or when the spill will end. We can only speculate about the extent of the damage to vast wetlands that produce three-quarters of the nation’s shrimp — habitat that humans, plants, animals and birds depend upon for livelihoods or lives. BP’s spill could become the nation’s greatest environmental catastrophe, dwarfing both Hurricane Katrina and Exxon Valdez. Already, the uncomfortable reality of energy’s true cost is literally washing up on our shores.
Weeks ago, some of the migratory birds that are now whistling their mating songs in the idylls of Cape Cod might have passed over Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana, where the oil slick first made contact with land last Thursday. For nine years, many Cape Codders have viewed this issue from the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s perspective, arguing that despoiling their blue horizon is an unacceptable price to pay, even for clean energy.
Offshore oil rigs that dot our coasts from New Orleans to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, also mar the view, but if a wind farm fails, the disaster has begun and ended when the turbine topples into the sea. Wind, after all, doesn’t leak.
Nor does turbulent air release the greenhouse gases that oil sends up when burned, either as slicks of crude are set ablaze to save our shorelines or when properly ignited in our internal combustion engines.
Energy conservation has to come first, as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, leader of the nation’s most energy-efficient state, acknowledged when he came out against offshore oil drilling this month. McKinsey & Co., one of the world’s top consulting firms, reported last year that Americans will save twice what we invest in energy efficiency within 10 years. But even if we are able to climb this slippery slope toward self-sacrifice, humans everywhere will continue to sop up energy from various sources. If the same mind power and engineering feats now being directed to capping the Gulf’s unruly well could be channeled into a proactive renewable energy initiative worthy of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Program, that would be a start. But no matter where our energy comes from in the future, ignorance is no longer an option.
We will all benefit from bringing the reality of energy costs closer to home — out of our windows, atop our roofs. Putting energy production in front of our eyes could bring us closer to acknowledging our addiction, the first step to kicking any habit. When it comes to energy, seeing just might be believing.
Meera Subramanian is a freelance environmental journalist and senior editor for the online religion magazine Killing the Buddha. She is based in Brooklyn and can be found at www.meerasub.org.