Timber, Coal, Oil and Wind

The first energy crisis in Boston began in the 18th century when local supplies of firewood that could be readily hauled to the city by wagon had been exhausted. Entrepreneurial Maine islanders responded to the market opportunity and were soon hauling deck loads of firewood on their schooners and sailing their cargo “up” to Boston to sell. It is extraordinary to think that it was more economical to transport 15 or 30 cords of wood from a Maine island 200 miles upwind to Boston than to bring a similar amount of wood from beyond 20 miles of the city’s periphery. It gives you an idea of how poor the road networks were and how few bridges had been built in the hinterlands. But a generation of innovation and road-building throughout New England opened up a new energy source for the expanding urban population. Remote hillsides throughout western Massachusetts, southern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine were stripped of timber, which was then buried in shallow pits and set afire. The charcoal produced from New England's woodlands produced enough energy to last half a century. But the landscape that remained after charcoaling left huge scars that are still visible today, as almost 90 percent of the timber in a radius of 100 miles of the larger towns and cities in New England was stripped from the land.

Charcoal was replaced by coal, which came to Maine and New England as an industrial and residential fuel beginning in the 1880s, when railroads linked the coalfields of West Virginia and Appalachia with the seaport at Newport News on the Virginia coast and made coal exports economically feasible. This new source of energy also brought wrenching economic changes. Steamships that burned coal transformed ocean transportation, driving even the fastest clipper ships into an early grave and idling shipyards that had employed tens of thousands of skilled workers throughout New England building sailing crafts. Ironically, there was a reprieve for a few shipyards after their owners discovered that the cheapest way to transport the huge volumes of coal needed to supply textile mills and hundreds of other manufacturing enterprises throughout the country was on specially designed “Downeasters.” Four-, five-, six- and ultimately seven-masted coal schooners were launched from Maine boatyards for almost 30 years, until even these last wooden sailing ships became obsolete.

New England’s coal era ended after World War II, when we began heating our homes with oil. Most coal dealers became oil dealers. The switch to this new source of energy was expensive for those who had to replace central heating systems with new oil-fired boilers, but oil was plentiful, cheap and cleaner than coal. Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act during the Eisenhower administration to build roads that greatly increased commerce and tourism, while Detroit cranked out ever-larger cars devouring ever-greater amounts of gas and oil—a party for all! It was probably the least difficult energy transition the country has ever made, unless you were in the electric car and bus business, in which case, you were wiped out. We hardly seemed to notice that we subsidized our oil and gas transition by funding public highways, drilling incentives, oil leases from public lands and generous oil depletion allowances. Our national experience during most of the last century has led most of us to expect that developing newer sources of energy ought to be a similarly painless process.

Recently we have come face to face with some of the hidden costs of our energy choices. The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig and resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico brought the true costs of offshore oil drilling into focus. Continued dependence on oil from an increasingly unstable Middle East makes us vulnerable to unpredictable spikes in price. The safety and dependability of nuclear power plants have undoubtedly been dealt a blow, at least temporarily, by the one-two punch of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami that has crippled multiple nuclear reactors and threatened a vast area with a radioactive disaster. Natural gas development in the tight shale deposits under vast sections of this country is increasingly plagued with public fears about contamination from “hydro-fracking” techniques.

Meanwhile, the effort to harness the region’s winds as a component of the region’s energy budget—onshore and off—has been hampered by view-shed concerns from those living on the shores of Cape Cod, as well as other environmentalists in western Maine, who want to protect the wilderness character of remote mountains, especially where views from the Appalachian Trail are concerned. The noises from turbines under certain wind conditions from neighbors within 2 or 3,000 feet of a wind farm have raised other acute concerns that have been magnified by front-page stories in the Maine Sunday Telegram, The Boston Globe and The New York Times and gone viral in the blogosphere where Wind Turbine Syndrome is an established fact to its denizens.

Here in New England, we all celebrate our traditions of rugged individualism, but protecting our individual needs and desires without any sense of what we require collectively is a recipe, if not for disaster, at least for paralysis, while the nation’s energy policy is held hostage by our conflicting local interests—coal, nuclear, oil, natural gas and wind. Coal risks climate change; nuclear risks meltdowns; oil risks geopolitical instability; natural gas risks groundwater pollution; wind risks view shed and noise intrusions. Someday soon, we are going to have to make some real choices. You weigh the risks.



March 16, 2011