Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil

Because almost every energy resource comes under attack, making energy policy seems to be impossible.

Each time a new possibility is proposed, opponents appear and warn about the catastrophe it could cause.

Take a look at the list of resources and what opponents say.

Oil from the Middle East or Venezuela makes the United States vulnerable to political pressure from countries that oppose our policies and threaten our allies. The word “blackmail” pops up when talk turns to imported oil.

The alternative is oil from North America. In the United States, its exploitation can lead to massive leaks or spills or invasion of pristine national preserves.

Oil from Canada is drawn from Alberta sands, but the process is harmful to air quality. Woe be to us if a pipeline carrying such oil, like the proposed Keystone XL line or the Portland Pipeline, ever springs a leak.

There’s no point in talking about coal. Coal mining is dangerous and burning it can seriously harm air quality. It’s doubtful if there is any such thing as clean coal.

Natural gas is coming on strong. It has a less harmful effect on air quality than oil or coal. And it turns out there’s a lot of it in the United States.

But to get at natural gas, or oil for that matter, increasingly the industry uses hydraulic fracturing – fracking. That process can endanger drinking water quality, so many communities want it banned.

As for nuclear, Chernobyl or Fukashima were enough to scare the world. And we still cannot agree on how to store spent fuel so that it does not pose a radioactive danger to the world.

Perhaps the solution would be renewable resources that don’t cause any pollution and relieve our dependence on outside suppliers.

Hydro can produce more energy than any other renewable, and it has been used successfully for more than two centuries.

But dams prevent fish from swimming upstream. So we have had a policy in recent years of turning back the clock by tearing dams down, even some that have been functioning for ages.

And no new dams are being built except in countries like China that don’t mind what they flood or places like Labrador, which are so remote that opponents leave them alone.

Then there’s wind. It has been coming on strong with the kind of enthusiasm that was formerly associated with hydro.

But some people don’t like seeing wind turbines on ridgelines or strewn across the landscape. And, unfortunately, they are not reliable enough to provide a steady supply. What do you do when the wind doesn’t blow?

Solar seems to have relatively few problems to go along with the relatively few places where it can be used effectively.

And we will have to recognize that the development of renewables will increase our costs.

Recently, Maine regulators proved that point, when they approved offshore wind generation. They agreed electric rates could increase to cover development costs.

Perhaps the best solution is to use energy more efficiently, which means that we could get more done with less energy.

If homes were better insulated or cars could use electricity at hours when it was readily available maybe we would need less of resources we don’t really like. Though government subsidies for efficiency have increased, more tax dollars go to developing more supply.

Smart electric meters might be an effective way of helping use energy efficiently. But some worry about the radio frequency waves they use, and others think that any external control of home energy use would be an invasion of privacy.

By now, the picture is clear. There’s always somebody ready to oppose any proposed element of energy policy.

There are lessons to be drawn from this depressing picture.

With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States uses 20 percent of its energy. We must conserve, but there’s no chance Americans will reduce their living standards or productive capacity to the point of only using a fraction of current consumption.

We are going to have use a mix of resources plus conservation and accept some downsides. If we choose resources that have the least environmental impact, we will need some way to prioritize those impacts and accept some of them instead of allowing opponents to pick them off one at a time.

We have to ask the question, “If you don’t like this resource, which mix of energy supply, adequate to meet our needs, are you willing to accept?”

In short, when it comes to energy policy, “Just Say No” won’t work.

GORDON L. WEIL, of Harpswell, is an author, publisher, consultant and former public official.


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