CONTRIBUTORS

Environmental year in review: The future doesn’t vote

Philip Conkling
Contributed photo
Philip Conkling
Posted Dec. 30, 2013, at 9:32 a.m.

The poet T.S. Eliot wrote about our desire to squeeze the universe into a ball and roll it toward some overwhelming question. And though Eliot was writing about love and not year-end thoughts, many of us are tempted to try to squeeze the universe into a ball before the calendar turns.

So let us pause to contemplate Maine’s significant environmental triumphs and tragedies this year. Of course, triumph and tragedy is in the eye of the beholder. To many fishing guides in the Downeast Lakes region of Washington County, the year ended in triumph after the Commissioner of the DEP denied a permit for the project First Wind’s 16-turbine Bowers Mountain wind farm. These fishing guides and their advocates succeeded in protecting Maine’s scenic integrity from the intrusions of renewable energy development.

Similarly, to the landowners around Saponac Lake in Grand Falls township, DEP’s initial denial of a proposed 14-turbine wind farm on nearby Passadumkeag Mountain was a triumph of scenery over development. But then tragedy soon followed after a citizen’s review board voted to overturn the agency’s denial. To some Maine residents, wind turbines are beautiful examples of clean technology; to others wind turbines are an ugly industrial development that will mar the majesty of remote ridges and mountains —Maine’s true source of wealth. Which is why many energy developers are trying to figure out a way to put these large structures somewhere out of everyone’s sight — such as 10 miles offshore.

Like wind turbines on land, the beauty of offshore wind turbines is in the eye of the beholder — and perhaps also in their nationality. Maine’s offshore wind development plan got an initial boost when the Public Utilities Commission approved Norwegian energy giant, Statoil’s, proposal for a pilot project 10 miles off Boothbay. But then the governor weighed in and convinced lawmakers to give the home team, consisting of the University of Maine and Cianbro, the state’s innovative construction company, a last minute chance to compete for the pot of state money to test their home grown technology. When Statoil got wind of the political maneuvering, they promptly pulled up stakes and went to Scotland to test the technology there. If this intervention serves as an opportunity for the University and Cianbro to secure a major Department of Energy grant to demonstrate their locally developed technology and possibly stimulate a new Maine-based energy sector, it will be rightly be viewed as a tremendous triumph. If not, the loss of a $120 million investment from Statoil will be a notable tragedy. You have to hand it to Gov. Paul LePage, he is not afraid to make a decision — for better or worse.

The reason that all of these skirmishes are significant is that choices we make of how to light and heat our homes require very long-term bets and investments. To the extent that those choices are based on carbon sources, we are playing Russian roulette with climate change. Of course, most of those who are making energy decisions for future generations will not be around in 50 years to see how the experiment of reconfiguring our atmosphere will play out.

Climate change is very hard for most of us in Maine to see. How could a little bit more warmth not help us during Maine’s four seasons of almost winter, winter, more winter and mud season? To answer this question, you might want to ask a lobsterman whose industry has been upended over early shedding of lobsters, or clam diggers whose livelihoods have been disrupted from the explosion of green crabs, or shrimp fishermen whose entire winter season has recently been canceled. The common denominator of all of these unexpected marine events is significantly warmer waters throughout the massive basin of the Gulf of Maine.

Thus, the biggest story of the year in my book is the governor and legislative leaders’ effort, with the active support, I am sorry to report, of some of the state’s leading environmental groups, to bring a natural gas pipeline north from Boston to supply us with this suddenly affordable source of fossil fuel. This 50-year commitment will have enormous consequences for our future. But as one politician cynically put it during the debate a half century ago over whether to ban DDT, “the future doesn’t vote.”

Philip Conkling is the founding publisher of The Working Waterfront and Island Journal. Additional writings are available at www.conklingassociates.com. His column appears every other week.

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