CPR's Victor Flatt in Houston Chronicle on a Momentous Week for Energy Policy

by Matthew Freeman

May 09, 2010

CPR Member Scholar Victor Flatt has an op-ed piece in this morning's Houston Chronicle, in which he argues that the week of April 20 will likely be recalled as "one of the most pivotal and important weeks in the history of energy in this country," citing the confluence of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling platform and its disastrous environmental consequences, and the federal approval of the massive Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound to capture wind energy.  He writes:

To be sure, offshore wind power has costs: impacts on animal habitat (notably birds'), possibly on fishing and on view-scapes. But in this case, cold calculation has determined that these costs are worth it when compared to the benefits of mostly pollution-free energy production. In the last few months, studies have shown that a string of offshore wind projects along the East Coast could provide ample electricity and, if the projects were linked by transmission lines, very dependable electricity, as wind variation is not uniform up and down the coast. In Germany and Denmark, linked wind systems have become so dependable that wind is sometimes preferentially used as base power over coal and nuclear.

The confluence of both these events also illustrates a move in the direction of the public good over the private good. Despite claims to the contrary, it is rarely the general public that is clamoring for more offshore oil drilling. While many people might like to have lower gasoline prices and reduced dependence on foreign oil, when the public actually sees the trade-offs in price, few make offshore drilling a priority. The political push for offshore drilling comes from the companies themselves, which realize profit through the recovery and processing of this product. Cape Wind also hopes to realize a profit, but it also has significant support from a public that wants to see viable greenhouse-gas-free energy become the norm. The public's clamor was enough to overcome even the most politically well-connected private opposition to Cape Wind, and this signals the breaking of a logjam. More and more approvals will be forthcoming, and this will transform the energy landscape.

The Deepwater Horizon platform exploded and the Cape Wind project was approved the same week that ongoing political rancor prompted a delay in the long-awaited Kerry-Graham-Lieberman energy/climate change bill. That legislation was originally seen as history in the making. Today, we're seeing history made in a different and possibly more powerful way — outside the political process and inside the minds of the public.

In addition to his CPR role, Professor Flatt wears a few other hats.  He's the Tom & Elizabeth Taft Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law; and a Distinguished Scholar of Carbon Trading and Carbon Markets, at the Global Energy Management Institute, University of Houston Bauer College of Business.

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