OUR OPINION: On energy, trade-offs and risk

Americans depend on cars. But cars kill 30,000 to 40,000 Americans a year or close to 100 people a day. That's more than all natural disasters combined.

Americans depend on cars. But cars kill 30,000 to 40,000 Americans a year or close to 100 people a day. That's more than all natural disasters combined.

So, how does our society respond to this astounding source of violent injury and death?

Simple: We adjust to it. We do what we can to pull down the accident rates as much as possible. We install seat belts and air bags, regulate car speeds and traffic rules and so on.

Then we drive.

We accept the basic terms of the trade-off, in other words.


With energy policy, we're likely to do the same thing, despite the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.

Does this mean that offshore oil construction will continue as if nothing has happened?

No. In fact, offshore oil drilling is very likely to be affected. A moratorium on new wells is possible; and if and when construction resumes, much tighter standards and regulation are a sure thing.

But the basic terms of our trade-off will remain. Those terms demand that in return for the relatively cheap energy that fuels modern Americans' lifestyle, citizens accept risks. The risks includes environmental impacts, overseas threats to the oil supply, Three Mile Island-type nuclear meltdowns and so on.

Here's the key: There is no escaping some level of risk, even with supposedly benign technologies such as solar power and wind. There are only continuing efforts to minimize risks while maximizing the amount of energy made available.

And right now, when safety is balanced against technology, geopolitics and cost, we're still likely to depend on oil, coal and natural gas for the bulk of our power with nuclear energy growing in importance. We're also likely to use more alternative sources of energy, but those sources remain too expensive both financially and environmentally to cover more than a modest share of our energy needs.

"Over the past century or so, the U.S. has built a $14-trillion-per-year economy that's based almost entirely on cheap hydrocarbons," writes energy journalist Robert Bryce in a new book, "Power Hungry."

"No matter how much the U.S. and the rest of the world may desire a move away from these fossil fuels, the transition to renewable sources of energy -- and to no-carbon sources such as nuclear power -- will take most of the 21st century and require trillions of dollars in new investment."


Why can't the transition be speeded up by, say, turning more aggressively to wind and solar energy?

Society is, in fact, making that turn. But wind and solar energy both are expensive and carry their own environmental risks. Specifically, wind and solar farms demand huge amounts of land, impacting local residents as well as birds and other wildlife -- and even then, all of that space and infrastructure generates only modest amounts of power.

As Bryce points out, "on an average day, the energy output of the Cardinal coal mine (in Kentucky) is nearly equal, in raw energy terms, to the daily output of all the solar panels and wind turbines in the U.S."

Add to that the fact that wind and solar are intermittent rather than steady sources of power, and you can see why fossil fuels and nuclear are likely to be our main sources of energy for years or even decades to come.

There are nearly 4,000 oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Let's make them as safe as possible. Let's take a fresh look as well at nuclear power, as Europe is doing even as countries there also embrace renewable energy.

But let's not pretend we can drive cars or generate electricity without risk. We can keep the trade-offs to a minimum, but we never will escape them in full.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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