By Peter Galuszka
After years of hemming and hawing about offshore oil drilling, Virginia finally seems on track to develop wind energy off its coast.
The U.S. Interior Department announced Nov. 30 that next year it would lease rights to 112,800 acres of ocean bed a little more than 23 miles off the southern part of the state’s Eastern Shore. Annual rent would be about $338,000. It would be the first such lease for wind power in the country.
The Virginia windmills could generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity, or about 200 megawatts more than what Dominion’s North Anna nuclear power station puts out. Other leases were announced off of coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Interested companies include Dominion, Electricity de France SA and Iberdrola SA.
There really hasn’t been much in the way of offshore wind power in the U.S. Most of the activity by far is off the southern and western coasts of the United Kingdom and off of the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway. China plans some big farms too. The early ones are nowhere the size of what could happen off the coast of the Old Dominion although future foreign projects are as big in terms of megawatts.
What’s curious is how little attention the announcement got in the Old Dominion. The Richmond newspaper did put it on its front page but during the past election, there was so much drubbing of the rising renewable energy sector — Solyndra, corruption and all that, but forget the oil depletion allowance — that wind and solar seemed tainted.
Therein lies the rub since the Mitt Romney campaign, raking in millions in Big Oil and King Coal money, tied itself with an American flag to fossil fuel. It made a big deal of claiming that it was Barack Obama’s regulation and not the stunning rise of natural gas that was beating up on coal. They also claimed, with the controversial pipeline from Canada in mind, that oil and gas were being brought to their knees. In fact, credible research groups were reporting that oil and gas were in such a boom in the U.S. that country could be a net exporter of hydrocarbon energy by 2020.
In Virginia, you now have a game going on of offshore wind one-upmanship.
In his quest to make Virginia “The Energy Capital of the East Coast,” Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has said he backs all types of energy sources, including hydrocarbons and renewables. But he obviously likes offshore oil drilling, judging from his statements and the big number of oil drilling displays versus the few wind exhibits shown at his annual energy conferences.
During this year’s election campaign, Republican McDonnell also pounded Obama hard for nixing Virginia’s planned oil and gas offshore lease sales just after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explosion and blowout caused widespread pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.
Not skipping a beat after winning the election, the Obama Administration stuck it back to McDonnell. The U.S. Interior Department won fanfare with its announcement of the lease sale for wind turbines.
Still in the fight, the Governor issued a press release saying he’s always urged wind power development off the Virginia coast and listed eight or so examples of what it has done, wind-wise.
And so it goes. We’ll have to see what really happens with wind offshore. What will the Navy say? It objected to offshore oil rigs saying they’d interfere with its combat target ranges off the Virginia Capes. The seafood and tourism industries also protested oil rigs, but it would seem windmills are a bit less threatening, provided fish trawlers keep their nets away. Doubtful you’d see the windmills from Virginia Beach oceanfront hotel balconies. No one ever heard of beaches being ruined by a wind spill.
One historical note. I was cleaning up my office the other day and found a copy of a front-page article I wrote for The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star. I quote my lede:
“An offshore oil field bristling with derricks may be developed off the Virginia and North Carolina coats if the federal government and oil companies follow through with plans already in motion.
“More than 3 million acres of ocean bottom from New Jersey to northern Florida will be offered to oil companies by the end of next year, provided the secretary of the interior gives his approval as expected.
“Within a decade or more, oil platforms may tower as close to the North Carolina coast as 16 nautical miles off Cape Lookout, should oil or gas be discovered. The closest sites off Virginia would be about 70 miles away.”
The date of my story? Jan. 11, 1981. Jimmy Carter was still president. Ronald Reagan was about to take office.
Besides showing my age, it pays tribute to the adage, “the more things change . . .” (You fill in the rest.)