Three things have happened lately that ought to make us think long and hard about how we use energy and where it should come from.
In Albany, legislators approved a moratorium on a controversial natural-gas extraction technique known as hydrofracking until May 15. At stake are enormous gas deposits - and pristine water supplies - in economically depressed upstate New York. The question for regulators is whether we can get at the gas without contaminating the groundwater.
In Washington, meanwhile, the Obama administration reportedly will leave in place a moratorium on offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico - but allow drilling to continue in the central and western Gulf. Despite the disastrous Gulf explosion in April that led to the largest accidental oil spill in history, deepwater drilling in the region seems destined to go on.
And on Long Island, contractors are clearing land at Brookhaven National Laboratory for a $300-million solar energy installation that will generate enough power for just 4,500 homes - and require the sacrifice of 42,000 trees. Scientists hope what they learn from this project will help drive down the cost of renewable energy, which right now remains doggedly uneconomic.
What do all these events have in common? They illustrate the tough choices Americans face as we struggle to satisfy our demand for affordable, reliable energy without irreparably damaging our environment.
For the most part, we'll muddle through by relying on science, regulation and crossed fingers. But it would be better to think more deeply about these issues. After all, most of those who oppose drilling aren't living in yurts and commuting by bicycle. On the other hand, those who favor drilling wouldn't want their own beaches or water supplies sacrificed on the altar of cheap hydrocarbons.
So let's ask ourselves: If we don't get at the gas upstate or the oil in the Gulf, will we end up burning dirtier coal instead? Will we become even more dependent on unstable foreign sources of energy, some of them notably unfriendly? Do we have the guts to reconsider nuclear power, which in France reliably supplies three-quarters of the nation's electricity?
It's nice to pretend we can all drive our Lincoln Navigators to beaches unsullied by sticky oil or unsightly offshore windmills. Or that we can continue blithely burning fossil fuel without overcooking our planet. Or that there is no danger in depending on tyrants for our lifeblood - and sending them boatloads of oil dollars in the bargain.
But reality is more complex, as events in Albany, Washington and Brookhaven demonstrate. We've got to make tough choices - choices that won't get any easier until the price we put on energy reflects all the costs of burning it. Unless we develop the will to change - perhaps by raising taxes on our carbon consumption or investing heavily in alternatives - we'll never succeed in slaking our thirst for energy without spoiling the Earth. hN