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May 22, 2010

Stop drilling for oil and plug holes with sunshine

Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

— The oil leak deep in the Gulf of Mexico should give us another hint that the time has long passed when we should stop drilling holes in the Earth for our major energy sources.

But it’s hard to be optimistic since all the catastrophes, shortages and high prices of the past have produced only short-term concerns and, before long, memories fade and life goes on as before.

We know what we have to do and we know we have the capability to do it. Must we keep destroying the Earth even more tragically before acquiring the resolve to harness the energy of the Sun? Surely our civilization is technologically advanced enough to do it.

Is it that Neanderthal genome that’s holding us back?

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion April 20 officially is sending 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the gulf, though some experts insist that 10 times that figure is leaking. We care because the leak and gurgling environmental nightmare is nearby and will affect our fish and wildlife, our shorelines, our tourism and our economy.

And sure, we can blame BP, which leased the oil rig; the government, which admittedly was lax on requiring more safety measures; or the big oil companies, who are driven by boosting profits from extracting more oil from domestic sources.

However, regardless of whatever safeguards are imposed on the oil companies and the resolve of government in enforcing more stringent regulations, accidents are going to happen _ just as they consistently are in locations that don’t catch our attention because they are far away and out of our tunnel vision.

Parts of Nigeria are oil wastelands, proving that having no regulations at all and letting big oil companies do what they want doesn’t work. They don’t care. In northern Alberta’s oil sands, from which we get most of our Canadian oil, native people’s natural resources have been polluted almost to death.

When we realize the extent of the environmental degradation caused by the current spill in the gulf, we must not be sedated by the call for reforms that promise catastrophes won’t happen again. Because they will, if not here then certainly somewhere else.

We must stop drilling and mining for more fossil fuels, including natural gas. We must learn to live with the oil supplies we have now while aggressively transitioning to solar power. Yes, it will be painful, but the future of the Earth, and our air and water, demands it.

If we can fly pilot-less drones over Afghanistan and Pakistan to complete pin-point (most of the time) bombing missions, surely we have the technological prowess to develop solar power plants and make it more affordable for homeowners to have solar panels.

Right now, solar power barely shows up on our energy pie charts, accounting for only 0.1 percent of the electricity produced in the nation. That figure is slowly rising, but it needs to climb more quickly by becoming a national priority.

According to the Electric Edison Institute, last year 13 percent of all new utility announcements and filings were for solar projects. ``Assuming the solar industry returns to its pre-recession growth rate of 50 percent each year, electricity from the sun will be the lowest cost option in almost every state by 2018,’’ the institute says.

It doesn’t have to be only in science fiction that advanced civilizations have learned to harness the energy of stars such as our sun.

Just as producing enough food so nobody in the world goes hungry is more of a political problem rather than one of economics, agriculture or resources, weaning ourselves from fossil fuels also is primarily of matter of will and political resolve.

Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, says domestic policy provisions for renewal energy such as solar ``would not cost the government a penny.” In fact, getting to 15 percent solar would require a relatively small government investment of between $2 billion and $3 billion in total, he adds.

The real challenge, of course, is controlling our oil consumption until the days of solar energy arrive, so we can succeed in no new drilling. Even if we get our political leaders behind a major shift to solar energy, we still have to alter our lifestyles to make it economically and environmentally feasible.

For example, what happened to all the talk about ``hybrid’’ cars when gasoline prices shot up to $4 a gallon a few years back? The talk stopped when prices declined. At least now we have mini-SUVs instead of the big ones that were dominating the market, but that’s not enough.

To save the Earth as we know it, and many of its life forms, we have to be willing to conserve more energy and force our leaders to get behind a major transition to solar power. It can, and must, be accomplished. 

Cary Brunswick, a former managing editor at The Daily Star, is a freelance writer and editor of oneontatoday.com. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/carybrunswick.