Of Wind Farms and Oil Spills

On Wednesday, the news headlines offered a stark comparison between two possible futures for energy production in America.
Turbine and oil, photo by faceless b and phault

While the world faces a series of ugly accidents related to oil and coal, renewable energy scores a major victory.

Photo by faceless b and phault.

While a mine collapsed in Kentucky and oil began to leak from a sunken rig in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar stood in front of a crowd of reporters in Boston with an announcement that, for some, was long-awaited: “I am approving the Cape Wind Project.”

The Cape Wind Project, a bitterly contested proposal to install 130 electricity-generating windmills five miles off the coast of Cape Cod, is slated to be the first offshore wind farm in the United States. But the project has been in various states of delay for nearly nine years—due in part to opposition from some environmentalists.

Those opposed to wind development in the area cite threats to the fishing industry, the disturbance of marine ecosystems, and the possibility of bird strikes from spinning turbine blades as reasons to shelve Cape Wind. The Cape’s famous ocean views could be at stake too. As Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent opponent of the project, wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times, “Hundreds of flashing lights to warn airplanes away from the turbines will steal the stars and nighttime views. The noise of the turbines will be audible onshore.”

But that’s not the view of most environmentalists. A letter circulated in response to Kennedy’s op-ed, backed by author Bill McKibben and the executive directors of Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network, among others, read: “We are, simply put, in a state of ecological emergency. Constructing windmills six miles from Cape Cod, where they will be visible as half-inch dots on the horizon, is the least that we can do."

Walking Away From Oil
John Francis delivering a TED talk
When an oil spill coated birds in San Francisco Bay 40 years ago, John Francis quit driving. Then he quit speaking. Madeline Ostrander asked him what he learned in that process that can help us deal with the BP oil spill.

Either way, it’s big news for the prospects of renewable energy in the U.S. Called “the shot heard ‘round the world for American clean energy” by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, the announcement comes during a tumultuous few weeks for wind energy’s older, dirtier cousin: the fossil fuel industry. Today, two miners were found dead in a Kentucky coal mine after a mineshaft collapsed; earlier this month, an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine killed 29 people. Both incidents grimly dramatized the industry’s impact on the health and safety of its workers and raised serious questions about the true costs of coal mining—from the ecologically disastrous practice of mountaintop removal and the high rates of chronic lung disease in coal country to coal’s contributions to global climate change.

And then there was the news from the oil industry: While Ken Salazar gave the green light to Cape Wind on Wednesday, it was reported that an oil well is currently spewing between 1,000 and 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. It may take weeks to stop the leak; clean-up will take far longer. Meanwhile, a miles-long oil slick has made its way to the surface, posing a threat to birds, marine life, fishing and shrimping industries, and the coastlines of several states.

The Cape Wind decision, a bright spot sandwiched between high-profile disasters related to the production of fossil fuel, is a reminder for many that not all energy sources come with such calamitous strings attached. As reported by The New York Times, Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) said of the leak, “The tragedy off the coast of Louisiana shows we need to be asking a lot more tough questions of Big Oil.” He has already drafted legislation that would place a moratorium on offshore oil drilling.


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