One of the defining debates of our time is the painful intersection between energy, the economy, and the environment.
The good news is that it turns out our planet still has plenty of readily available energy, from the tar sands of Alberta, to the coal fields of West Virginia, to the wind farms of the St. Lawrence Valley and the vast hydro complexes of Quebec.
The bad news is that almost every source of energy comes with serious consequences for the planet, the largest perhaps being the possibility of rejiggering the very chemistry of our atmosphere.
We’re like goldfish, stuck in a bowl of water that is growing slowly murkier and warmer.
Meanwhile, the push to open new sources of energy, from the Marcellus shale in central New York to new wind farms in places like Hammond, New York, has created fierce political and social fault lines.
“When you take a look at the divided town that [wind developer] Iberdrola has walked away from, there really are no winners here,” said Mary Hamilton who led the opposition to the wind power project near the Thousand Islands, which was canceled recently.
“We have people who were friends for many, many years who don’t speak to each other now and it’s going to take decades before things return to normal,” Hamilton said, in an interview with NCPR.
Here’s the problem with this debate. We know that we need energy and we need it to be available at relatively low cost if Americans are to maintain anything resembling our current standard of living.
So what’s missing from these NIMBY-style feuds is any kind of context for understanding the relative impacts, the pros and the cons of each potential type of new energy.
What are the upsides of a wind farm in the Thousand Islands vs. an oil field in the Gulf of Mexico? How does a hydro-fracking industry in central New York compare with a nuclear power industry just over the border in Ontario?
Right now, New Yorkers receive a vast amount of energy from coal-fired power plants that drive climate change, and from fuel oil extracted in parts of the world that have few environmental protections.
How does that compare with wind farms or a regulated natural gas industry in our own back yard? Right now there’s no way of knowing.
The confusing truth is that every energy project — again, with the possible exception of solar — has at least one credible environmental group fighting vehemently to shut it down. Which leaves Americans baffled about the choices we face.
So here is my modest proposal.
The environmental community, working with scientists and policy makers, should come up with a reasonably objective scale that rates the risks each particular types of new energy development.
At the lowest end of the scale — a “1″ — might be efforts at conservation. Paying for insulation, higher-efficiency appliances, recycling, etc., has almost no downside.
Next on the scale would be the very greenest kinds of energy, primarily solar, which are relatively benign but require significant manufacturing efforts. That would be a “2″.
Locally produced biomass might be a “3″.
As we move up the scale, scientists and ecologists would have to sort through the upsides (and downsides) of the various energy sources at our disposal.
A type of energy that, say, cuts greenhouse gases sharply but kills some wildlife along the way might be a “4″ or a “5″.
Technologies that have relatively low environmental impacts up front — like nuclear — but carry Fukishima-sized risks if things go wrong in the future might be a “6″ or a “7″.
Energy that destroys mountain tops, contaminates streams and contributes to global warming might be an “8″ or a “9″.
There could also be variables in the numbers to measure local versus global impacts. A power plant that emits mercury might be rated a 10-level risk locally, but only a 6 or 7 globally.
A wind farm in one region might receive a relatively low score, because threats to birds in that particular landscape are marginal, while in another place — where, say, migratory patterns raise more concerns — the risk score would be higher.
Obviously, this kind of ranking wouldn’t be an easy assignment.
It would require real science, actual data. And green groups and activists would have to put their cards on the table about the trade-offs and compromises we face. That’s controversial stuff.
Some environmentalists have already taken a stab at this kind of clarity. Vermont-based activist Bill McKibben has taken heavy fire from other green activists for his support for wind energy, which he thinks is a better option relative to fossil fuels.
“The choice, in other words, is not between windmills and untouched nature,” McKibben argues. “It’s between windmills and the destruction of the planet’s biology on a scale we can barely begin to imagine.”
Other green groups have tentatively embraced hydro, despite the destruction of river habitats, or even backed the revival of an American nuclear power industry. Those comparative arguments have triggered firestorms.
Which is healthy. This is the real-world debate about energy we need next.
Not a noisy muddle of people shouting No — and for the most part being ignored — but a much clearer environmental argument about the painful choices and trade-offs that lie ahead.