THE POWER SHORTAGE
BY WALTER CRONKITE
The great blackout of 2003 has exposed, with too stark a drama, that the country faces not one but two power problems: One is the matter of electric power; the other is the matter of political power.
It will be easier to deal with the former than the latter. Among the experts in the electric power world, there seems to be agreement that to assure an uninterrupted source of power, we need more power plants and more transmission lines.
Among the experts in the political power world, there is no agreement at all on how to get there and as they argue the possibilities, another blackout festers.
One of the Bush administration's first major proposals to Congress was its energy bill, which, among many other concerns, recognized the danger of an aging electric power network. It called for regulatory incentives to speed the power industry's building of new plants and transmission lines.
The bill is stalled in Congress because environmentalist Democrats, joined by some environmentalist Republicans, object strenuously to the inclusion of several pet Bush projects, such as opening the Alaskan wilderness to oil exploration.
Energy-bill advocates also maintain that plans to build more power plants and transmission lines have run into serious delays because of objections from those who plead "not in my back yard."
Here is the growing schism among environmentalists: the collision of the desperate need to clean up our environment by finding substitutes for the insidious and ever-increasing dangers of fossil fuels with the need to preserve for future generations our natural resources our fields and forests and oceans and the wildlife, for which we have a special responsibility.
Your reporter is a NIMBYist, and believe me, it is an awkward position for a dedicated environmentalist.
Developers have grand designs in the recreational and fishing waters off the porch of my summer home at Martha's Vineyard, Mass., on magnificent Nantucket Sound.
They are seeking permission to build on 24 square miles a significant part of the Sound a cluster of 130 massive windmills, each 100 feet taller than the Capitol dome in Washington. Since I won't like the looks of that vast field of towers; and I won't like their interference with glorious sailing in the Sound; and I will worry about the wildlife, including porpoises and whales on their occasional visits and several birds of endangered species on their annual migrations; and I sympathize with the already severely ailing fishing industry, whose important resource those waters are for these reasons I'm opposed to the project.
At least I am opposed until the developers can assure me that the Sound is the only feasible site for this regional field of generators, and that the location in the Sound's comparatively shallow and placid waters is not primarily because the site would keep their costs lower and their profits higher than some offshore site.
This conflict between two absolutes the necessity of developing cleaner power sources and the necessity of preserving the natural environment will be a regional problem for only a short time. Surely would-be wind-farm developers, awaiting the Nantucket outcome, already are casting their eyes on other great inlets around our coasts. To name a few: San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound, San Diego Bay, Delaware Bay, Boston Harbor and the many bays on the whole beautiful coast of Maine.
So as the power struggle intensifies in Washington and spills over into Nantucket Sound, I find myself a NIMBYist, abashedly and perhaps only temporarily as we await further developments. At the moment, I've picked up that selfish phrase: "Not in my back yard."
NIMBY is a dirty word to environmentalists, but until all the questions are answered by those who would profit from this windmill project, some of us will wear NIMBY's scarlet letters while we try to protect for all Americans a corner of their common land.
Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail(at)cronkitecolumn.com.
(c) 2003 Walter Cronkite
Distributed by King Features Syndicate