Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Environmental Tradeoffs

I am in sunny California giving seminars at a variety of schools out here but I am keeping up with East Coast news. This New York Times editorial below sketches an interesting dilemma for environmentalits; the siting of a locally annoying green technology (wind turbines). Clearly, the Coase theorem should be applicable here. In the parts of Cape Cod where these wind turbines would be located perhaps home owners nearby should receive some compensation for the implicit takings if their view and overall quality of life will be impeded. How much money? That should be negotiated.

February 28, 2006
Sneak Attack on Cape Wind
Any serious effort to deal with global warming and oil dependency is going to outrage somebody. Whether it is a proposal to import liquefied natural gas to reduce the use of a dirtier fuel like coal or to build a nuclear plant for the same reason, someone in the neighborhood is going to scream.

So it is with an ambitious proposal called Cape Wind, a large wind farm that a Massachusetts energy company wants to build off Cape Cod, about six miles from shore. The proposal involves constructing 130 giant turbines whose windmill arms would reach 400 feet above the water. They would be visible, though barely so, on the distant horizon.

The benefits of this project are enormous in terms of local air pollution, global warming and other problems associated with the burning of fossil fuels. Cape Wind would displace 113 million gallons of oil per year (or 570,000 tons of coal, or 10 billion cubic feet of natural gas), while generating three-fourths of the energy needs of the Cape, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. It has the support of residents, regional newspapers and just about every major environmental organization in America.

Nevertheless, a group called the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound — which includes ordinary folk but is bankrolled by some very rich people with very nice views — has spent large sums lobbying against the project. The group has raised concerns about threats to marine and bird life, all of which are being addressed in environmental impact studies. But their biggest beef is about the sheer proximity of the turbines. Their preferred outcome is to wait until the technology is available to build wind farms much farther out to sea, a delay the country simply cannot afford.

Into this debate steps Don Young of Alaska, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Mr. Young has fashioned an amendment that he apparently intends to attach to a financing bill for the Coast Guard when that bill reaches a Senate-House conference committee. Committee chairmen often act imperiously in this way, even though the amendment has never been debated by either house.

The amendment would ban the construction of wind turbines within 1.5 nautical miles of a shipping lane or ferry route. That would kill Cape Wind, parts of which would come within 1,500 feet of a ferry route. Mr. Young says he's concerned about safety. Yet offshore oil rigs are allowed within 500 feet of shipping in this country. And Mr. Young has no objection to a wind farm in Long Island Sound that would lie only 1.65 miles from shipping.

It's clear that Mr. Young's sole purpose is to kill Cape Wind. It's not clear why he wants to do this — Nantucket Sound, after all, is a long way from Alaska. Whatever his reasons, his colleagues in the House and Senate — reliable environmentalists like Olympia Snowe of Maine, for instance — cannot let him get away with it.

Cape Wind has been the subject of endless environmental reviews. We believe it should be approved. But if there are objections to be made, they should be made in the open and not by stealth.