Washington View: While we argue, China surges ahead in energy production

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photoDon Brunell recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business.

President Barack Obama says he will delay until 2013 a decision about the $13 billion Keystone pipeline, which would carry Canadian oil to Gulf Coast refineries.

Supporters say the 1,661 mile pipeline would create as many as 20,000 high-paying construction jobs, reduce America’s dependence on oil from unfriendly nations and revitalize the stricken Gulf Coast economy. Opponents worry about potential environmental impacts, and Midwest property owners in the path of the pipeline say “not in my backyard.”

Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says the delay might effectively kill the project, pushing Canada to export unrefined oil directly to Asia.

The Keystone controversy is an example of what’s wrong with America’s energy policy today. It’s in a state of political paralysis.

These days, any energy project — even a “green” energy project — is opposed by someone and mired in seemingly endless debate and delay.

Two recent letters to the editor in The Columbian illustrate that point.

One letter opposed a proposed $28 million biomass facility in Vancouver. Biomass boilers embody two iconic green energy principles: renewable energy and wood waste converted to electricity. The project would convert industrial wood waste into energy, replacing 11 fossil fuel boilers that currently heat five public buildings downtown.

Despite a hearing examiner’s ruling that the proposal conforms to city zoning laws and would have lower emissions than other nearby facilities, it has been slammed by opponents as a health hazard and “a blight on our downtown.” In a final attempt to block the project, the City Council recently imposed an emergency — and some say illegal — building moratorium at the site.

A second letter opposed construction of a small private wind farm just outside the Columbia River Gorge near White Salmon. The owner is a family-owned timber company that has been a long-time family-wage employer in Skamania County, a county with chronic high unemployment.

Keep in mind that wind energy is touted as the quintessential renewable energy — clean and quiet, with zero emissions. However, as more wind turbines are erected, a growing number complain that they are eyesores. Even though this farm is clearly outside the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, opponents just don’t want it — period.

Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which reviews the siting of energy projects, decided to cut the project’s size to placate opponents, but the smaller size means it is no longer financially viable.

A strong economy depends on an ample supply of affordable energy to run factories, heat hospitals, schools and office buildings, and fuel trucks and cars. When energy costs rise, the cost of everything goes up, our standard of living drops, and the U.S. loses its competitive edge in the world economy.

There is no perfect energy source. But while we endlessly argue and debate, other nations are moving forward with energy projects, leaving the U.S. further and further behind.

Coal is our most abundant, affordable and efficient energy source, but activists who want to eliminate its use have effectively killed U.S. efforts to develop clean coal technology. In the meantime, China is surging ahead perfecting clean coal technology and building clean coal plants.

Most of America’s massive oil reserves are off limits, while we continue to buy crude from hostile nations and kill pipelines carrying oil from our Canadian friends.

Natural gas is clean, abundant and affordable, but opponents are lining up to block exploration, pipelines and new fracking technology.

Washington gets more than 75 percent of its electricity from hydropower, but increasingly, our hydropower production is being withdrawn for fish passages and dam removal.

Nuclear power has safely provided 75 percent of France’s electricity for decades, but the failure of Japan’s older nuclear plants in the wake of massive earthquakes has made it politically untouchable.

Even solar energy has its detractors. Imagine the protests that will surface as the Bureau of Land Management moves forward with plans for 34 solar installations on 300,000 acres of wilderness in the California desert.

So, the question we need to ask is, if folks don’t want coal … or oil … or natural gas … or hydropower … or nuclear power … or wind farms … or big solar installations, how will we get the energy America needs?

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state’s chamber of commerce. Visit http://www.awb.org.