March 2012, Vol. 239 No. 3

Editor's Notebook

Invisible Infrastructure

Jeff Share, Editor

Life is so filled with ironies, isn’t it?

Every major election year it seems that gasoline prices skyrocket and every politician has the solution. Of course they make little sense since they prefer to pander instead of considering that oil is a commodity and is treated as such by the marketplace. Anything that may affect supply moves the marketplace. That’s how it is in a free market economy.

Then we have “Xena Warrior Princess” and her Greenpeace buddies boarding the drill ship Noble Discoverer in New Zealand. It was destined for the Arctic where “reckless” Shell intends to explore for oil. In the concerted effort to block drilling offshore Alaska , the NRDC denounced the administration’s support of Shell, claiming a blowout would endanger polar bears and and other wildlife.

These groups are determined to block oil and gas development no matter the cost to our struggling economy, which needs all of the cheap energy it can get. They want to block expanded drilling efforts in the Gulf of Mexico or anywhere else off the U.S. coastline.They’re trying to stop onshore drilling because of unproven questions relating to fracking; their nonsensical opposition to Keystone XL needs no further documentation.
Of all places, I found answers in a well-reasoned Feb. 19 column entitled “Drawing the Line at Power Lines” by Elisabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times.

“As energy people, the TransCanada executives were perhaps being overly rational about a reality that Americans seem determined to forget: Large-scale energy is typically produced in remote places and inevitably needs to be transported to the populated areas where it is used. That is a fact whether the energy comes in the form of ‘dirty’ traditional fuels like coal or oil, or in the form of cleaner natural gas. It is true even if it comes in the guise of ‘green’ electricity, generated by the sun or wind.

“There are pipelines, trains, trucks and high-voltage transmission lines. None of them are pretty, and all have environmental drawbacks. But if you want to drive your cars, heat your homes and watch TV, you will have to choose among these unpalatable options. Practically speaking, there is no energy equivalent of wireless.”

Rosenthal notes that some of the biggest energy battles today involve not oil pipelines but “next generation” energy transport: the expansion of pipe networks for natural gas and the high-voltage transmissions lines that connect large-scale wind and solar farms to population centers. And these systems are expanding rapidly as the U.S. shifts away from traditional fossil fuels.

In the article, the experts agreed the U.S. must find a way to build infrastructure necessary to power, despite the objections and obstacles. “There is always risk associated with the transport of energy, but you have to do it,” said Jackie Forrest, IHS CERA senior energy analyst. “You try to minimize the risk.”

In the Midwest, where new oil discoveries in the Bakken field have exceeded pipeline capacity, producers are shipping by rail large quantities of oil to Gulf Coast refineries –a bottleneck Keystone would help alleviate. “That increases costs, increases greenhouse gas emissions and also has the potential for crashes and spills,” Forrest said,

Another CERA expert, Alex Klein, said “people want renewables, but nobody wants transmission.” The lack of transmission lines to get electricity from remote windy areas in Texas, the Midwest and Minnesota was “one of the most significant hurdles” to the growth of the wind industry to the point where some wind farms have curtailed production because they can’t move electricity they generate.

Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council for Foreign Relations, offers a cogent summation.

“You can’t get around this transportation problem, but people don’t want to acknowledge that – it’s a really big problem that we’ve have to face. The more you move to transmission lines that cross lots of states, the more you’ll have the same trouble you did with Keystone XL.

“There will always be people who don’t like these things near them. But at some point we have to function as a society rather than as individuals, in order to get the things we need built.”


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