Easterners tilt at windmills while Westerners joust with a real foe

  • Joshua Zaffos


While Wyoming ranchers and hunters are facing off with gas companies eager to drill their rangelands and hunting grounds, Massachusetts lobster barons are facing their own showdown with an energy juggernaut. Has the West found an ally in Eastern blue bloods and politicians such as Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.? Not exactly.

In Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, locals are trying to curb plans to drill as many as 80,000 methane gas wells over the next six years that may damage thousands of private groundwater wells and slice-and-dice the open landscape with roads, gates and waste ponds. Meanwhile, off the coast of Nantucket, citizens are opposing — get this — an offshore wind farm.

That’s right. The Cape Cod set claims the proposed line of 130 windmills, 11 miles off the Atlantic coast, would ruin the ocean view, the property values and otherwise bring down the neighborhood.

Wind energy doesn’t pollute the air or water, doesn’t contribute to global warming and doesn’t tie our energy supply to fickle foreign dealers of fossil fuels. And, as Gregg Easterbrook pointed out in The New Republic last November, the 420-foot-tall wind towers will be far enough offshore to be visible only on crystal-clear days, and then only as if they were "distant sailing-ship masts."

In Easterbrook’s criticism of Nantucket’s anti-wind crusade, he chalks up the snooty attitude to the "broad consensus in American politics about where energy should come from: Somewhere Else." Easterbrook suggests that when it comes to energy development — methane gas or wind — we all hold to the NIMBY credo: Not in My Backyard.

The problem with the comparison is that the West already is Somewhere Else. Western coal, gas and uranium have powered this country since entrepreneurs could get at them with a shovel, a thumper truck or a Geiger counter. One day, the entire nation’s radioactive trash, including waste from the five nuclear power plants in New England, will come West to Yucca Mountain or another "Somewhere Else" spot out here.

The West has already given up its backyard. In the North Fork Valley in western Colorado, for two years I lived closer to a methane gas well than to a traffic light. It’s the same story for communities in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, and in parts of Wyoming and Montana.

Our counties appreciate the royalties and economic benefits from energy extraction, which help us build schools and pay police officers’ salaries, but we also suffer the environmental costs. Our towns have accepted wastewater ponds, maintenance roads, invasive weeds, two-ton trucks, roadkill, and a bunch of obnoxious smells, sights and sounds into our backyards. In other words, "Sure, go ahead in our backyard, but just not right next to the horseshoe pits; keep the polluted water out of the dog dish, and don’t dump those toxic rocks in the kids’ sandbox."

Comparing Eastern opposition to an offshore wind farm with Western objection to methane gas drilling is an insult. Out West, we’re pushing our states toward renewable energy, and we’re designing wind farms right on the real estate. This past November, Colorado joined New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California in mandating that a percentage of the state’s power come from alternative energy such as wind, solar or geothermal heat. Last June, the Western Governors’ Association signed an agreement to produce 30,000 megawatts of renewable power — enough to supply 30 cities the size of Seattle — by 2015.

New England states have made similar pledges, but are they just hot air? Cape Cod and its constant offshore breezes make it the premier site for wind power development on the Eastern seaboard.

But the rich chums of senators as well as some of the senators themselves are in a tizzy because there might be the vague outline of a sailing-ship mast on the horizon. A Nantucket citizens’ protest group has already outspent the wind-energy firm from Boston that’s looking to harness the breeze; compare that to Western grassroots groups that survive on a fraction of an energy company’s bankroll.

So, here’s a new rallying cry for Westerners who have already sacrificed their backyards for energy development: Not Off My Front Porch. I also have a deal for Nantucket: If the thought of a windmill out the bay window on a picture-perfect day makes you want to moan into your martini, send the turbines out West. We’ll be happy to send you a nuclear waste repository.

Joshua Zaffos reports for the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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