Windfall

Windfall

If ever there was a time to get off of oil and plug into offshore wind power, it is now, argues Mike Tidwell, a clean-energy activist and veteran journalist with deep roots in the bayou.

By Mike Tidwell
Published: September-October 2010

This, in sum, is what 1.2 million barrels of oil looks like. That's how much oil we extract from the Gulf of Mexico every day. There's been no significant slowdown in the wake of the BP disaster. You've heard of "too big to fail"? This is "too big to regulate." There are simply too many wells, too many platforms. It's just luck, essentially, that we made it this long without a colossal spill. And more spills are coming, guaranteed, in the future, huge ones, made worse as the drilling moves to even deeper and riskier waters. Shell Oil already operates a platform appropriately named "the Mars Unit," now pumping oil 130 miles offshore in the central Gulf--nearly three times farther out than Deepwater. Last March Shell completed work on the world-record holder, drilling through 8,000 feet of Gulf water. Named "Perdido," the platform's underwater hull--from top to bottom--is nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower (984 feet). By itself, Perdido can tap up to 35 wells.  

So of course we need air-tight regulations every step of the way. Thank God the U.S. Department of the Interior is reorganizing its oversight staff to minimize corporate coziness. And yes, as a bottom line, we need a secondary "relief well" drilled simultaneously with the main production wells.

But none of this will ever be enough. Ever. The scale is too big. Human error will always be an "unsafe" element when this many human beings are involved. Catastrophic equipment failure will always be just around the corner as long as this much equipment is roaring and rattling in the Gulf. Worldwide, every year, accidental oil spills dump 200 million gallons into the environment. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita poured into the Gulf region 12 million gallons that were being held in aboveground oil storage facilities, on platforms, in pipelines, and on a tank barge.

And every day, even when drilling works as planned, we "spill" global warming pollution into the atmosphere from the combustion of that same oil. That's 4.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from American cars and trucks alone, day after day. This while hurricanes get stronger and sea-level rise threatens cities from Miami to Mumbai.

But for me it was touring the Gulf oil field with Tee Brud Griffin that finally convinced me our fragile atmosphere was in big, big trouble. We humans were clearly up to the task of mega-level destruction, I realized. I returned to my home state of Maryland and soon became a full-time climate activist. Some pundits have taken to calling south Louisiana our "National Sacrifice Zone" following the great storms of 2005 and the oil spill of 2010. But with climate change, we are all from Louisiana.

All of us.

 

Ironically, the same week the Deepwater Horizon rig sank in the Gulf of Mexico, the Department of the Interior approved America's very first offshore wind farm. The nod went to the much-publicized Cape Wind project in Massachusetts' Nantucket Sound. Using 130 modern windmills, with blades 180 feet long, this project alone could ultimately produce 450 megawatts of clean electricity, enough to power nearly all of Cape Cod.

Even more ironic, the same day as the BP blowout, the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium released a report showing there was enough offshore wind potential in the state to easily power 750,000 homes--forever. Bob McDonnell, Virginia's Republican governor, had been screaming "Drill, baby, drill" louder than anyone else in America prior to Deepwater Horizon. He led the fight to try to end the mid-Atlantic drilling moratorium. Now he doesn't talk about drilling so much.

What connects Massachusetts and Virginia is this: Both coastlines fall along something geologists call the Mid-Atlantic Bight. This is the continuous, shallow platform of the continental shelf that runs roughly from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The water depth and proximity to the populous East Coast makes the bight nearly perfect for offshore wind development. Across nine states and 600 miles, it presents the best alternative vision we have to the Gulf Coast nightmare: a clean-energy shoreline capable of creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of Delaware reported that this offshore region, by itself, could produce the equivalent of 70 percent of America's current electricity generation.

Production at that level won't come overnight, of course, and we'll have to figure out how to transmit it all. But you get the point: There's lots and lots of wind out there. As a nation, we need radically improved energy-efficiency standards plus big gains in solar, land-based wind, and sustainable biofuels. Efficiency is especially important. Europeans use roughly half the energy per capita that Americans do. Clearly we can do better. But offshore wind, especially in the Mid-Atlantic Bight, can and must play a huge role in America's clean-energy future. It will help us prepare, post spill, for getting our cars to run on electrons, not gasoline.

Those electric cars, meanwhile, are definitely on their way. At least 10 automakers are preparing to launch plug-in models between 2010 and 2012. Tesla Motors, focusing exclusively on electric vehicles, became the first U.S. automaker in 50 years to go public, joining the Nasdaq Stock Market last June.

Author Profile

Mike Tidwell

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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