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The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind

Posted: Tuesday, April 27, 2010

There are many good reasons not to like the idea of opening vast seascapes off America's coasts to oil and gas drilling, from the risk of devastating accidents like the recent Gulf of Mexico blowout to the folly of further endangering our climate for just a few months' worth of fossil fuels. But here's one reason you probably haven't heard: The rush to pump will undermine our efforts to build cleaner ocean wind farms - and push the United States further behind in the race to lead the fast-growing market for offshore wind technologies.

At first glance, it's hard to see the link between building offshore wind turbines and President Obama's March decision to open long-closed areas off the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast to oil and gas exploration and leasing.

The link - and the unwelcome surprise - is that energy companies cashing in on those new offshore rigs will compete directly with the infant U.S. offshore wind industry for the limited supply of specialized ships, equipment and marine engineering talent. So pushing to drain these relatively puny offshore oil reserves will end up delaying another administration goal: Creating a robust U.S. offshore wind industry that can produce clean energy and thousands of good jobs for generations.

The Obama administration clearly understands offshore wind's potential for combating climate change and bolstering coastal communities. Prompted by studies showing that offshore turbines could provide enough electricity to power the entire country, it has moved to encourage the growth of an offshore wind industry. And the move offshore seems a natural for U.S. wind companies, already world leaders in inventing, building and selling the equipment needed to transform land-based breezes into electrons.

When it comes to harnessing ocean gusts however, the United States trails its foreign competitors. In Europe, companies have already installed several hundred offshore turbines. As a result, European engineers have amassed years of hands-on expertise in overcoming the special challenges posed by erecting wind turbines in the briny deep. They've learned how to make electronics and transmission cables that can resist corrosive saltwater, and how to operate the special - and expensive - ships needed to move and install their jumbo turbines. Even China has gotten its feet wet in building offshore wind, looking to gain an edge in an emerging world market that forecasters predict will be worth billions.

The U.S. offshore wind industry, meanwhile, has been stuck in the doldrums, with little more than paper plans for about a dozen farms, mostly off the East Coast. But last year, some of those projects - including farms off Delaware and New Jersey - moved closer to reality, winning key backing from the public, environmentalists, government officials and investors. Some experts predicted the farms could be up and running by mid-decade. After decades of talk, offshore wind finally looked ready to walk.

The White House's offshore drilling plan, unfortunately, strings a new tripwire. If successful, the push to build new rigs off the East Coast will raise demand for the specialized "jack up" ships used to erect large at-sea structures. Offshore wind companies may have to wait in line for years - or spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build their own ships, which can also take years. Similarly, a new rig boom will push up demand and prices for specialized computer chips, mechanical parts and maritime expertise used by both the offshore wind and oil industries.

This conflict doesn't have to occur. There is no compelling reason for the United States to open these offshore oil reserves. Economists say it is unlikely the drilling will even dent domestic energy prices, adding that we will continue to rely heavily on imported oil to quench our petroleum thirst. And it seems ill-timed to uncork a new source of carbon dioxide, just as we are beginning to fight climate change.

The administration should stop working at cross-purposes. We should stop looking beneath the seafloor for energy solutions, inadvertently creating new obstacles for the emerging offshore wind industry. This is the time to look up, to the plentiful ocean breezes that power mighty waves. We are poised to be a global leader in the renewable energy industry. We should urge our policymakers to favor clean more than dirty technologies, to boost our economy and provide affordable energy for our homes and businesses. As Bob Dylan crooned in 1963, "the answer is blowin' in the wind."

• Actor Ted Danson is a board member and Andrew Sharpless is the CEO of international ocean conservation group Oceana. Readers may write to them at: Protecting the World's Oceans, 1350 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 500, Washington, D.C. 20036; Web site: www.oceana.org.



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