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Today, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar will hold a high-profile public hearing in San Francisco about the future of offshore oil drilling along America’s coastlines.
We have a choice. Invest in safe, renewable forms of ocean energy — including wind, wave, tidal and current power — that will help secure our future prosperity, create thousands of new jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Alternatively, we can continue to give tax breaks to oil companies that pollute our oceans and keep us locked in a carbon age.
The stakes are high. Oil companies are lining up to cash in on a Bush Administration proposal to offer petroleum development in 1.7 billion acres of formerly protected coastlines, including 136 million acres off the coast of California. This proposal represents a huge step backward. Our country has finally woken up to the need for a green energy future. Now we need to invest in the technology to make America the world leader in renewable energy.
Offshore wind power is one promising source of energy that is commercially viable today. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimate that the wind off America’s coast could generate nearly 1,000 gigawatts — a little more than the current U.S. electrical capacity.
Ocean power, while not as developed, is every bit as promising. California has more than 745 miles of coastline, and every mile has daily energy transfers in the form of waves, tides and current. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than a quarter of California’s energy demand could be met by technology that harnesses these forms of ocean energy. Economic projections indicate that ocean energy could become cost-competitive over the long term if governmental leadership exists to encourage investment in these technologies.
Over 100 years ago, Adolph Sutro, the 24th mayor of San Francisco, recognized the power of San Francisco’s waves, building a wave catch-basin that he hoped to one day turn into a wave-powered “overtopping” system near Cliff House.
Today in San Francisco, we’re not just talking about ocean power, we are advancing its actual implementation. We have submitted an application to the federal government to develop an underwater wave project off San Francisco’s Ocean Beach that could generate between 30MW and 100MW of power. And we are actively working to develop a tidal power demonstration project in the San Francisco Bay that demonstrates the promise of technologies that capture tides.
Before we move forward with ocean energy projects, there are environmental concerns that must be addressed. We need to avoid impacts on marine habitats, releases from foreign material into the water (such as hydraulic fluids), and visual and noise impacts to coastal residents.
Federal leadership on ocean energy is crucial because virtually every site where ocean power is likely to be tested or deployed is subject to federal jurisdiction. Unlike conventional wind and solar, ocean power cannot be tested or deployed on private land. The industry will only emerge and mature in the U.S. if the federal government uses its position to advance the technology.
Federal government action should include:
1. Federal policies to facilitate ocean power demonstration projects as a first step toward commercial development of ocean power.
2. FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) and MMS (Minerals Management Service) should resolve their jurisdictional dispute and clarify their respective authorities for regulation of ocean energy. This is already underway.
3. Federal and state regulatory agencies should compile existing information on ocean power (data collected to date, etc.) into a publicly accessible common library.
4. Beginning in 2009, federal and state governments should vastly increase R&D to study, monitor and report on common impacts of ocean energy so that these issues can be efficiently addressed for each project.
5. State and federal regulatory policy should explicitly encourage pilot and demonstration-scale projects under permitting conditions, which assure protection of ocean resources.
6. Federal and state regulatory agencies should prepare a unified environmental document for each application for deployment of demonstration projects, and should otherwise coordinate their permitting procedures.
7. Decisions on individual applications should advance the public interest by increasing renewable generation capacity and effectively protecting the affected ocean resources.
Faced with a choice between a downward spiral of environmental degradation and increased reliance on a finite resource or investing in safe, renewable energy that can power our country and save our planet, the choice should be clear.