Offshore Drilling? Nuclear Power? Old Ugly vs. Old Nothing

Should we drill offshore? Drill in Alaska? Drill in Crawford, Texas? Never ever drill anywhere ever again? Build a few nuclear power plants? Fuel all vehicles with a sawgrass-Taco Bell grease formula?

The current back-and-forth on energy policy between some Dems and some Repubs reminds me of what I call the Galloway Rule,  after a local sports radio yakker.

Discussing a contest between two second-rate teams, Galloway would allow that Team A was far from stellar but would nonetheless stomp Team B, which not only had  mentally deficient coaches  but five starters sidelined by injuries. “Old Ugly will beat Old Nothing every time,” he would declare.

The Galloway Rule also applies to political questions. It would be peachy to have the Perfect Solution With Absolutely No Downsides whenever we have to make a choice. But the PSAND almost never exists, a fact frequently and conveniently overlooked by partisans of all stripes.  All too often we’re left with a choice of flawed choices, a field of Old Uglies each with its own hairy warts and double chins. We must choose the Least Ugly of the lot.

This is definitely the case with energy policy.

No need to recite all the many Old Ugly Factors in our current addiction to oil–environmental, geopolitical, economic, etc. So what about the alternatives?

New offshore drilling? I’m visiting Santa Barbara, California this summer. It’s the site of the huge 1969 oil spill that helped to launch  the American environmental movement and led to the current ban on any new offshore drilling in the U.S.  A huge oil spill is  Old Ugly with a vengeance. Nobody wants another drop spilled in any of the earth’s oceans. And there is no doubt that any new offshore drilling will carry the risk, however remote, of a spill.

Nuclear? As John McCain notes below, many countries aren’t as superstitious as we are about using nuclear power.  Yes,  nuclear plants  can malfunction  with serious consequences, but mankind’s history with nuclear power shows those accidents are rare indeed. Three Mile Island has become a rallying cry for the No-Nuke faction, but not a single person was killed in that mishap.

Wind? Solar? Let’s build ’em. Let’s invest. The sun and wind can be a part of the solution–but not the whole answer anytime soon.

Mass Transit?  Put it in the mix. My home town, Dallas, a capital of Car Culture, has proved over the past decade that even a sprawling metroplace will make use of  light rail. All along the DART rail line from Plano to South Dallas, we’ve seen mass transit prove popular enough to spark all kinds of development both residential and retail. People want to be near the rail line. But again, this is a partial solution: 90 percent of greater Dallas lives too far away from rail to make it a feasible transit solution, a situation replicated in most of the big Sun Belt cities.

Conservation? A big yes, and here’s the beauty part: We don’t need to wait for Explicit Instructions from Washington on this score. Set that thermostat on 78 degrees. Drive less. Drive slower. Plan errands better. Car pool. Walk or bike a bit. I started being more aware of my driving habits when gas crossed $2.50 a gallon.

You get the picture. Every energy answer has an Old Ugly factor. Some alternatives carry environmental  dangers. Others are hugely expensive. Others nibble at the edges of the problem but don’t bring a total solution. Others will take slow, agonizing work over decades. Others require personal sacrifice.

As you may have gathered, I’m for trying  everything. Our energy demands present  a monstrous challenge, a war with a thousand-mile front, and we’ve got to try all kinds of combinations to tame the beast.  But  you know what? Every combination we come up with will have its downsides. No combo will be perfect. All will be Old Ugly in one way or another.

But Old Ugly will beat Old Nothing every time. I think that should be the  rule for all the voices in the energy debate: You can’t advocate Old Nothing. You can’t just sit there and shoot down every proposal that gets proposed, pointing out their flaws and pretending that the status quo isn’t riddled with flaws of its own. Even if you think we should get all petroleum out of our lives pronto, it’s not going to happen in the next 10 or 20 years.  This country is  going to use vast amounts of energy for a long, long time, and we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, because in this case there is no perfect solution.  It’s not enough to denounce market speculators or greedy oil barons, or to  wish we could live like the Plains Indians or the old Navajo, our moccassins treading lightly on Mother Earth. Blame and nostalgia do not form an energy policy.

That’s why I don’t see McCain’s newfound acceptance of offshore drilling as being some kind of scandalous flip-flop. If it is, I’ve flip-flopped too. (Entry to come on flipflops vs. growth and evolution.)  Back when we could get distant others to do the  dirty work of oil extraction at a reasonable price, I saw no reason to drill anywhere near our shores. I also like having other people come around and pick up my garbage, but if they wanted $500 bucks a bag, I’d truck it to the dump myself.

 I spent a happy week on Florida’s pristine, white-powder beaches last summer, and it was paradise. And yes,  I know it takes a decade to find and extract any new oil, and yes,  I know we can’t “drill our way out” of this problem. But some kind of new drilling may well be one part of the big combo of answers we’re going to need, so just repeating the party line –“Drilling offshore now won’t affect our gas prices at all”–is just mindless and unhelpful. Of course it won’t help now. Duh.  But now has a way of leading to later, and then it might help.

Anyway, with all options on the table, here’s Mccain on nuclear power:

 In the speech, Mr. McCain also intends to renew his call for new nuclear reactors in the United States, where none have been built for more than three decades. “One nation today has plans to build almost 50 new reactors by 2020,’’ Mr. McCain is to say. “Another country plans to build 26 major nuclear stations. A third nation plans to build enough nuclear plants to meet one quarter of all the electricity needs of its people — a population of more than a billion people. Those three countries are China, Russia, and India. And if they have the vision to set and carry out great goals in energy policy, then why don’t we?’’

Good question.

 Obama is also more receptive to a nuclear option than the typical Dem, or at least he has been. According to some of the nuke-watchers at this site, his support may have wavered as he sought the Democratic nomination. Each party has its third rails, of course. The GOP can’t alienate the Religious Right, and the Dems can’t ruffle the teachers’ unions or the hard-line, anti-nuke enviros. But, assuming Obama doesn’t get backed into a “Read My Lips, No New Nukes” capitulation between now and November, maybe he can switch back after he’s elected.

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