Which Would You Choose: Offshore Wind or Offshore Oil?

Like all Americans, I am sickened by the news coming from the Gulf of Mexico. The oil spill is now 100 miles long and is moving toward the Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida coastlines.

As I watch coverage of the devastation, I am reminded of another energy story from last week: the approval of the Cape Wind offshore wind farm in the Nantucket Sound.

What a contrast these two energy projects make: The dirty, hazardous fuel that can swamp local communities versus the clean, sustainable energy that doesn’t spill.

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If I were an official in a coastal state, I know which one I would choose. I would reject President Obama’s plan for more offshore oil drilling and I would invest in renewable offshore projects that wouldn’t harm my state. 

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I realize that oil and gas drilling has brought jobs and income to the state of Louisiana. It has helped fuel the state’s economy, but it is painfully clear that it also brings real risk.

Louisiana is home to 40 percent of America’s wetlands. Over the years, the oil support infrastructure has eaten away at those wetlands, with more and more being dredged to support offshore oil. I saw the erosion of the wetlands and coastal barriers first hand when I visited the region after Katrina. There have been cries to restore the wetlands for years, yet now another devastating blow has landed on one of the richest ecosystems in the nation.

The economy will suffer along with the ecosystem. A 2006 report found that the U.S. commercial fishing industry generated more than $103 billion in sales, provided $44.3 billion in income, and supported more than 1.5 million jobs. But these are jobs that rely on clean water and healthy fish--not oil slicks.

Fishermen in the Gulf know their livelihood is at stake. The State of Louisiana opened shrimp season early on Thursday in an effort to let shrimpers harvest as much as possible, but by Sunday, the federal government ordered a halt to all fishing in the oil-slick region due to public safety concerns. Fishermen who struggled to rebuild their business after Hurricane Katrina are worried they won’t rebound after this. Several Louisiana shrimpers have filed a class action lawsuit against BP, the owners of the oil rig, and its contractor Halliburton, for endangering their income.

There is, of course, yet another hazard that comes from a heavily reliance on offshore drilling: 900 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution for each barrel of oil we burn. While not as visible as the impact of the oil spill, carbon pollution could be just as devastating to Louisiana. Global warming could inundate Louisiana’s wetlands as sea levels rise and hurricanes become more ferocious. In the ocean, carbon dioxide becomes an acid that could make it impossible for Louisiana’s oysters and crabs to build the shells they need to reproduce.

In contrast, offshore wind farms do not pollute the water, air, or local communities. These renewable projects--which could provide power for plug-in hybrid cars--have a track record of success and reliability.

I recently blogged about my trip to offshore wind farms in Denmark, which generates 20 percent of its electricity from wind. At first, people living in nearby coastal towns were concerned that the wind farms would hurt their vibrant tourism and marina businesses. Yet that never came to pass.

Now, the mayor of one of the town’s told me, “We look back and wonder what we were so worried about.”

Sadly, that cannot be said for the communities along the Gulf of Mexico that are about to be turned upside down by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

As we watch the horrific spectacle of yet another oil spill ravage our waters, our wildlife, our fishing and tourism industries, we must ask, once again: what will it take to get our leaders to act?

We must pass a clean energy and climate bill that is designed to prevent tragedies like this in the future--legislation that will shift America away from oil, toward cleaner and renewable sources that can’t poison our coasts. The work has begun. It must move ahead now.