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Forum editorial: No simple slam-dunk for energy

Today's issue: Energy dilemma looks more like a crisis. Our position: Don't buy into easy solutions promoted by special interests. The warning, "Be careful what you wish for," is beginning to have ironic resonance in the energy economy. The more ...

Today's issue: Energy dilemma looks more like a crisis.

Our position: Don't buy into easy solutions promoted by special interests.

The warning, "Be careful what you wish for," is beginning to have ironic resonance in the energy economy. The more utopian environmentalists, for example, seem to be between the proverbial rock and a hard place, even if they don't know it or won't admit it.

For years Americans were lectured by conservationist types who preached that U.S. consumers should be paying much higher prices for energy, specifically gasoline. They often used high European gas prices as the model. One happy result, the conservation lobby said, will be slowing the flow of crude oil, thus lessening damage to the environment from oil development; air pollution will be reduced because motorists will buy more efficient alternative fuel cars and drive less.

To a modest extent, those things are happening as the market responds to $4-a-gallon gasoline. But the other side of the energy equation has the potential (and the reality in some places already) to be far less environmentally friendly. For example:

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- As crude oil prices hover at record highs, the push for more, not less, exploration, drilling, pipelines and refinery capacity has never been greater. The drive is on to wring crude from oil shale in the American West and tar sands in western Canada; both require environmentally destructive recovery techniques.

- Public and political sentiment regarding oil drilling in previously off-limits places - coastal waters off Florida and California, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska - has shifted dramatically in favor of tapping more oil, a circumstance that has energized environmental protectionists.

- The spectacular growth of electricity generated by wind is resulting in veritable forests of turbine towers all over the nation's windiest regions. Now the concern is the wind farms' alleged threat to migrating birds, including the endangered whooping crane.

- The rush by the auto industry to electric cars looks as "green" as it gets. But the only short-term realistic way to meet rising demand for electricity is coal-fired power generation, which is anathema to the green lobby. And what about production and disposal of the millions of batteries associated with the electric car? Has anyone really made an honest calculation that compares gasoline saved to energy expended to build an electric car?

- As the rush accelerates to find and exploit more domestic and North American supplies of crude oil and natural gas, the landscape will be crisscrossed by thousands of miles of new pipelines, such as the TransCanada line under construction in eastern North Dakota. Concerns about damage to scenic areas and the potential for pipeline leaks into waterways delayed final regulatory approval of the project.

So the law of unintended consequences seems to be working its perverse magic in a changing energy economy. There are no easy fixes, no environmentally pure alternatives, no economically viable substitutes for the fossil fuel component. When some interest group - whether the drill-more crowd or green revolutionaries - advances a sure-fire solution, look behind the rhetoric.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper's Editorial Board.

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