OCTOBER 2001

 

OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 2001 FULL ISSUE

ONE EARTH, TWO CHOICES

By PAUL KOBERSTEIN AND JOHN PAUL WILLIAMS

Last winter if you took a deep breath of air in downtown Bellingham, you could have filled your lungs with acrid, cancer­ causing chemicals. A chorus line of antique diesel-burning generators belched soot into the air just yards away. You might have thought you were in 19th century Pittsburgh, not in this seemingly pristine corner of the Pacific Northwest, at the dawn of the 21st century.

The American Lung Association ranked Bellingham air quality as the very best in the nation from 1997 to 1999. But as increased pollution from power plants wafted overhead, people here were wondering whether they had sacrificed clean air as the price for keeping the lights on. With an energy shortage gripping the West, communities everywhere are facing this difficult choice.

But it's a false choice. The Northwest has an unprecedented opportunity today to develop energy sources that do not foul the planet. These sources - solar, wind, geothermal and conservation - could ready meet all the region's future needs. Instead, efforts to develop these sources are being smothered by a stampede of new fossil fuel plants, often built with less than the expected standard of installing the best available pollution control technologies. And the newer plants will emit massive quantities of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, while in many cases draining overtapped rivers and aquifers for massive amounts of water needed for power plant cooling. A typical plant can suck up enough water to supply a small city. And each new gas-fired plant will drain billions of dollars from the Northwest economy in payments to out-of-region natural gas supplies and profits to developers.

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Paul Koberstein