A cleaner source of off­shore en­ergy

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

We can’t spill wind. That’s a fun­da­men­tal les­son we should take away from BP’s off­shore oil dis­as­ter — even if we learn noth­ing else.

So be­fore we clut­ter our frag­ile wa­ters with even more risky rigs punch­ing holes in the sea floor, Congress and the ad­min­is­tra­tion need to get se­ri­ous about giv­ing a fair shake to a much less prob­lem­atic power source: off­shore wind. The technology is ready. But un­fair poli­cies that fa­vor Big Oil — and pro­vide lit­tle in­cen­tive for in­vestors to em­brace safer al­ter­na­tives — are hin­der­ing ef­forts to turn sea gusts into gobs of green power and new jobs.

The Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon dis­as­ter un­der­scores the need to end this dou­ble stan­dard. For decades, the oil in­dus­try has en­joyed lax over­sight and bil­lions of dol­lars in di­rect and in­di­rect tax­payer sub­si­dies. The in­dus­try will get at least $36.5 bil­lion in tax­payer help over the next decade un­der cur­rent poli­cies. And don’t for­get the ad­di­tional perk: a laugh­able, con­gres­sion­ally or­dered li­a­bil­ity cap of $75 mil­lion per ac­ci­dent. In 2009, BP made prof­its of nearly $25 bil­lion — so in about one day, the com­pany makes more than it is re­quired to pay for its con­tin­u­ing dis­as­ter.

Al­ter­na­tive en­ergy ad­vo­cates strug­gle to sus­tain even mod­est govern­ment back­ing. They’ve con­stantly fought to pro­tect fed­eral re­search bud­gets and tax in­cen­tives that are, by oil in­dus­try stan­dards, paltry. Fed­eral sup­port for wind R&D is ex­pected to be just $75 mil­lion in fis­cal year 2010, less than one-sixth of the $469 mil­lion fun­neled to fos­sil fu­els.

That im­bal­ance re­flects an­other trou­bling re­al­ity: Pol­i­cy­mak­ers have largely ig­nored pleas to pre­vent the United States, which pi­o­neered wind tech­nolo­gies, from fall­ing be­hind com­peti­tors in Europe and China. When in­vestors first pro­posed the Cape Wind project off Mas­sachusetts a decade ago, no fed­eral agency even had the clear author­ity to lead its per­mit­ting process, de­spite the fact that off­shore wind tur­bines al­ready had been spin­ning off Europe’s coast for nearly a decade.

Iron­i­cally, Congress ul­ti­mately gave the job of over­see­ing Cape Wind and other off­shore wind projects to the Min­er­als Man­age­ment Ser­vice — the same agency in charge of off­shore drilling. Even with the cur­rent reshuf­fling of that agency, there’s lit­tle rea­son to be­lieve that re­new­able en­ergy will not play sec­ond fid­dle to oil and gas un­less the Ad­min­is­tra­tion sets some clear pri­or­i­ties.

Given this his­tory of ne­glect, it’s no won­der that most pro­posed U.S. off­shore wind farms lan­guish, en­tan­gled in red tape and of­ten short of needed in­vest­ment dol­lars. Even though Cape Wind re­cently won one fed­eral per­mit, its ap­proval process is far from over. In­vestors know that, to date, not one off­shore wind farm is op­er­at­ing in the United States.

We need to change that, soon. Of course all off­shore en­ergy projects need ad­e­quate en­vi­ron­men­tal re­view. In ret­ro­spect, how­ever, many con­cerns about off­shore wind’s im­pacts — in­clud­ing aes­thetic and noise con­cerns — seem quaint com­pared to the huge plumes of oil black­en­ing the Gulf of Mex­ico. It’s hard to imag­ine a sce­nario in which even the largest off­shore wind farm poses risks com­pa­ra­ble to a sin­gle drilling rig.

In­deed, off­shore wind’s ad­van­tages be­come clearer with each pass­ing day: No tourism-, seafood in­dus­try-, and wildlife-killing muck. No toxic plumes. No mas­sive ex­plo­sions.

And yet some pol­i­cy­mak­ers con­tinue to claim that off­shore drilling is the way out of our en­ergy prob­lems. But even the petroleum in­dus­try con­cedes that off­shore fields can pro­vide less than 1 per­cent of Amer­ica’s cur­rent en­ergy needs, even dur­ing pro­duc­tion peaks. That’s not enough to make a mean­ing­ful dent in prices. And once the oil is gone, so are the on­shore jobs and eco­nomic ben­e­fits.

The wind, in con­trast, never runs out. The jobs last for gen­er­a­tions.

Let’s make the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon dis­as­ter a teach­able moment about off­shore en­ergy. As they craft a new en­ergy pol­icy for the United States, Congress and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should put the brakes on fur­ther ocean drilling. There’s no rush to dig, es­pe­cially now that it is clear that drilling rigs are dan­ger­ous.

Mean­while, we can ac­cel­er­ate al­ter­na­tives like off­shore wind. That means fund­ing re­search and devel­op­ment, pro­vid­ing sta­ble tax and in­vest­ment in­cen­tives, and cre­at­ing a pre­dictable, prac­ti­cal reg­u­la­tory struc­ture. We should set a goal of re­gain­ing the lead in the grow­ing global off­shore wind mar­ket and reap­ing the jobs, wealth and tech­no­log­i­cal pres­tige that comes with be­ing the best.

If we start now, we’ll get to re­write his­tory. We’ll get to brag about how much car­bon diox­ide we pre­vented from en­ter­ing the at­mos­phere and how we helped pre­vent the ocean from be­com­ing too acidic to sup­port life. Projects like Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon will be re­mem­bered as a sym­bol of the dan­ger­ous past, and projects like Cape Wind will be revered as har­bin­gers of a cleaner, safer and more pros­per­ous fu­ture.

Re­mem­ber, we can’t spill wind. But with­out a smarter en­ergy pol­icy, we can surely waste it.

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