Wind worth more than oil, environmental group says

Wind turbines operate off the Netherlands in 2006. The prospective industry is in its beginning stages off the Southeast coast.

Offshore wind energy could produce more power and more jobs with fewer environmental and economic consequences than oil and natural gas off South Carolina and along the East Coast, an environmental advocate said in a study released Wednesday.

Oceana’s Offshore Energy by the Numbers is the latest push in what has become a data shoving match between environmental and oil industry interests. Both sides are trying to sway federal regulators who are reconsidering the rules for offshore exploration and exploitation of resources.

With the report, Oceana hopes to help persuade federal regulators not to approve oil and gas exploration offshore and to replace it with an emphasis on developing wind power, said Andrew Menaquale, Oceana energy analyst.

The issue cuts to the heart of Lowcountry coastal life, where the proposed exploration and drilling are controversial, politically charged and largely supported by state legislators and the congressional delegation. A potentially breakthrough attempt to place wind turbines offshore is still in a research phase, said Nicole Aiello, of the Santee Cooper utility.

The new study, like earlier reports, is a compilation of estimates working from federal data, historic offshore surveys and results of projects in other areas. Not all the comparisons are apples to apples.

For instance, the Oceana study compares the federally estimated economic value of oil and natural gas work with the current value of fishing, tourism and recreation along the coast — which could be impacted but wouldn’t be lost.

“As with any industry that doesn’t exist yet, there will be some degree of speculation,” said Menaquale, who wrote the report.

On the oil and gas side of the debate, Brian Straessle, of the American Petroleum Institute said, “Independent experts know it will take an all-of-the-above approach to meet the growing energy needs of American families and businesses.” Exploration and drilling doesn’t significantly disrupt marine life or coastal economies, he said.

“In the Gulf of Mexico, where seismic surveys and other oil and natural gas activities are common, the fishing industry supports more than 120,000 jobs and produces about $980 million worth of seafood every year,” Straessle said.

The federal Department of the Interior is expected to release a “notice of intent” within the next few weeks, essentially opening the public input process before deciding where to allow exploration and drilling for a five-year period, 2017-2022.

Regulators appear poised to approve at least exploring the East Coast, where a moratorium has been in place for decades. In July, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved the controversial use of loud air blasts from underwater sonic guns to find oil and gas deposits here.

The blasts can deafen and injure marine animals, according to studies by the U.S. Navy and other groups. But Straessle said they have been used for 30 years by research groups as well as the industry. The BOEM approval put restrictions in place to mitigate potential injuries.

The BOEM approval allowed companies to pursue permits, signaling an end to the moratorium, which is scheduled to end or be renewed in 2017. Nine companies have applied for permits to explore for oil and natural gas offshore from Delaware to Florida. All nine want to use sonic guns and all want to look off the South Carolina coast.

The bureau estimates 4.72 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 37.51 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas could lie beneath federal waters from Florida to Maine.

Developing oil and natural gas along the East Coast could create 280,000 new jobs and raise more than $50 billion in government revenue, Straessle said.

Oil lobbyists previously have estimated developing the fuels could generate $195 billion in investment and spending between 2017 and 2035, and contribute $23.5 billion per year to the economy.

But the threats are real. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill is estimated to have put more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. BP has paid more $27 billion so far in cleanup costs, fines and settlements, according to the Alabama Media Group.

The Oceana study found the equivalent of 11.3 billion barrels of energy could be produced by winds, compared with 6.1 billion in oil and gas. Menaquale said the BOEM estimates were based on industry figures that were multipliers, not current estimates, and potential reserves that aren’t recoverable with today’s technology.

The Oceana study said 218,640 jobs would be created by wind power, compared with 127,682 for oil and natural gas.

The percentage differences in the Oceana comparisons for South Carolina individually were similar. Oceana estimated a power potential of 21 gigawatts for the state, second highest on the coast after North Carolina. That estimate was based on the length of coastline in the state, Menaquale said.

But offshore winds in the Southeast generally have been considered marginal to produce electric power cost-effectively much less competitively, although the technology is improving.

Meanwhile, geology and earlier testing off South Carolina suggest there is little currently exploitable oil or natural gas to be found. Menaquale said BOEM’s estimates suggest drilling would produce enough oil and gas to meet demand only for less than a week. U.S. Energy Administration reports of current consumption suggest that is accurate.

“We really should be maximizing the resources we have, not the ones that threaten fishing and recreation,” Menaquale said. “To a large extent it comes down to state politicians and what they want to pursue.”

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