from the Congress Action newsletter

Energy Footprints

by: Kim Weissman
March 31, 2002

The debate over Tom Daschle's energy bill continues. One interesting facet of that debate involved the viability of alternate energy sources — solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, ocean tides — compared to the energy that could be obtained by drilling for oil and natural gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Supporters of alternate energy always point to the extent of land that would be impacted by oil drilling (as though that land would be totally destroyed and lost forever, which is simply not the case, as the 1999 Clinton Energy Department study determined), and those alternate energy supporters go on to pretend that the alternate sources of energy which they advocate are harmless and would have virtually no impact at all on the environment. But is that true?

The ANWR plan involves using approximately 2000 acres of land, that would be the so-called "footprint" of the development, the size of the parcel of land that would be affected. A 1998 study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) of the Department of the Interior estimated the total quantity of economically recoverable oil and gas in the ANWR area at between 4 and 11 billion barrels. During Senate debate, Alaska's Senator Murkowski indicated that ANWR is expected to produce about 1 million barrels of oil per day from that footprint. In contrast, 2000 acres of windmills, for example, would produce the energy equivalent of about 1800 barrels of oil daily. So for windmills to produce the energy equivalent of ANWR would require a wind farm of over one million acres — over 1700 square miles in size. For some points of reference, all of New York City covers 303 square miles, and Los Angeles covers 469 square miles. A wind farm five times the size of New York City would not be a very aesthetically pleasant sight, and certainly could not be said to have no environmental impact on the land and wildlife in the area. To which must be added the complaints of people living near wind farms about the noise produced by rotating windmill blades. But that's not all. Wind turbines have a proven tendency to kill low-flying birds at an alarming rate (determined by scientists counting birds killed by the turbine blades at California's Altamont Pass wind farm) of roughly one bird killed per year for every seven windmills. Including, incidentally, numerous birds that are listed as endangered. So while ANWR opponents agonize over the speculative harm that might be caused to Alaskan wildlife by oil drilling, windmills have a proven, not speculative, history of killing birds. At the kill rate observed in California, a wind farm with the energy equivalent of ANWR would — not might — kill over 22,000 birds every year.

Then there's solar power. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), obtaining electricity from solar power is far more efficient than from the wind. The NREL claims that a patch of 100 square miles (64,000 acres) of open space covered with efficient solar panels in an efficient collection locale such as Nevada, where sun rays are powerful, could generate all the electrical power needs of the United States. Thus the 2000 acres that would be occupied by ANWR, if appropriately located and covered by solar panels, could collect the energy equivalent of 8 million barrels of oil a day (the equivalent of approximately 4000 barrels per acre). The solar alternative, at least, begins to make a lot more sense than windmills. Far more efficient still, of course, are nuclear power plants, but those never seem to make it into the calculus of environmentalists when they discuss alternates to fossil fuel. Nuclear is, and always has been, the environmentalists' most despised source of energy.

But electricity accounts for only one of the energy needs of this country, and no one has yet figured out a way to fly aircraft, or to efficiently propel automobiles, using solar or wind power. The lack of consistency is also a serious drawback to electricity generation by both wind and solar. Solar power stations and wind power farms are just so much junk and wasted space at night, on cloudy days, and when the wind doesn't blow, or blows too strongly (one scientist commented on the experiment with wind power in Denmark: "where hypothetical generating capacity is three times that of actual peak demand, but in 1999 wind energy covered as little as 1.7 per cent of Denmark's total energy demand. …In the case of wind generators, they only operate at full capacity on the one or two days a month when the wind is within acceptable range — too weak and little power is generated, too strong and turbines are shut down"). And conditions of cloudy days and little or no wind or too much wind prevail in many parts of the country, sometimes for days and weeks on end. Which means that in addition to the land area required to construct the wind farms and the solar panels, additional space and environmental disruption will be needed for the enormous numbers of cross-country transmission lines to send solar-generated electricity from the sunny Southwest to the cloudy Northeast, or to send wind power from windy mountain passes. So while the denizens of Washington and New York bask in their alternate energy, it won't be their countryside that is dominated by mile after mile of solar stations and wind farms; and it won't be large swaths of their fertile farmland that is seized by eminent domain to plant thousands of transmission towers and tens of thousands of miles of power lines.

What about the threats or potential threats to wildlife posed by development of ANWR? Studies at Prudhoe Bay have shown the caribou herds actually thriving and increasing in the presence of oil fields and pipelines, but a new study released by the United States Geological Survey determined that wildlife in the ANWR area could be vulnerable to disturbances from oil drilling. But although the USGS study included far more land area than is contemplated in the current development proposals ("The scenarios used in the report on ANWR don't resemble the legislation currently before Congress," according to an Interior Department spokesman), and the report further found that risks to wildlife could be reduced by carefully managing exploration and production, environmentalists and anti-energy democrats have jumped on the study, proclaiming that massive environmental destruction would necessarily result.

It is clear that abundant and reliable energy is what fuels America's and the West's economic engine, and makes possible the advanced lifestyle enjoyed by the developed nations of the world. Most sources of energy preferred by environmentalists as alternates to fossil fuels are not abundant nor reliable, and that is why they are preferred — because it is the West's advanced lifestyle that the anti-development crowd hates the most. To them, the worst sort of pollution are people themselves, which is why the no-growth environmental movement is so closely aligned with the zero population movement.

"When every human chooses to stop breeding, Earth's biosphere will be allowed to return to its former glory, and all remaining creatures will be free to live, die, evolve (if they believe in evolution), and will perhaps pass away, as so many of Mother Nature's 'experiments' have done throughout the eons. Good health will be restored to the Earth's ecology... to the life form known by many as Gaia." — the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement

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United States Geological Survey:

USGS ANWR wildlife impact study:

The above article is the property of Kim Weissman, and is reprinted with his permission.
Contact him prior to reproducing.

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