EDITORIAL: Go with care on energy projects

September 26, 2009

One of the great conundrums of our time is how to maintain the most comfortable and convenient lifestyle in the history of the human race without destroying the environment. Our climate-controlled homes and offices depend on oil and coal; so do our cars, which require expensive roads that shred forests and farms.

So it’s understandable, and encouraging, to see broad support for alternative energy in a recent survey of subscribers to IBJ Daily, IBJ’s e-mail newsletter.

The survey, published in the Sept. 14 Focus section, showed nearly three of four respondents agreed that wind and solar are the best options for the future.

The enthusiasm appears sensible enough. Why not harvest seemingly limitless wind and sunlight and eliminate the pollution inherent to fossil fuels? Legendary Texas oil man T. Boone Pickens made much the same argument when he promoted wind energy and natural gas during an appearance at Indiana University this month.

Yet, a national study issued in August by The Nature Conservancy, a not-for-profit whose mission is to protect ecologically sensitive land and water, raises yellow flags even for wind and solar—not to mention biofuels.

These alternative energy forms require lots of space, the study warned. So much so that existing energy mandates, along with the carbon cap-and-trade legislation under consideration in Congress, would force the United States to devote a whopping 79,500 square miles to alternative energy in addition to land currently covered by biofuel crops, wind turbines and other alternative energy uses. The additional space would be equivalent to twice the land area of Indiana.

The Nature Conservancy didn’t use the study to push a particular alternative energy. However, it did leverage the madness of “energy sprawl” to advocate for redoubling efforts to conserve.

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican, pounced on the study to call for building more nuclear plants—an idea also heavily favored by IBJ poll respondents. But study author Rob McDonald cautioned that the plants require massive amounts of water, not to mention that they churn out waste that lasts thousands of years (likely the main reason few who responded to the poll favored storing nuclear waste in Indiana).

The Nature Conservancy called it right on this one. We can’t destroy nature to try to save it. We must emphasize conservation.

This isn’t to say new energy projects should be scuttled. Rather, as McDonald suggested in subsequent media interviews, new projects should be located thoughtfully.

Minimize destruction of natural habitat by offering incentives to build on degraded or abandoned land. Protect sensitive species.

These responsibilities fall to federal, state and local policymakers, as well as to companies that develop energy. Let’s hope they exercise wisdom.•


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