Oil vs. Wind: The Big Sur Coast and the Struggle for Energy Dominance

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South Coast views

On January 4, Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, announced plans to open essentially the entire US coast, specifically including Central California, to offshore oil and gas drilling. Zinke described his plan as “a new path for energy dominance in America.”

While it’s unclear whether Zinke meant by this that it’s a plan to give the fossil fuel industry even more dominance over American politics than it already has, or whether he was, somewhat awkwardly, trying to suggest that America will use all this energy to dominate others, it is clear that, in the age of Trump, the declared goal of fossil fuel fan boys is no longer mere energy independence.

This is, of course, the same Ryan Zinke who has been making headlines for proposing huge reductions in the size of National Monuments, erasing protections for endangered species, sticking the taxpayers with hefty bills for his personal travel, including dipping into fire fighting funds to pay for a personal helicopter tour of Nevada, and possibly failing to abide by financial disclosure laws.

He has also broken new ground in the realm of self-aggrandizement by insisting that the official Secretary of the Interior flag (who knew such a thing even existed?) be flown over Interior Department headquarters in Washington whenever he is in the office – a sort of parvenu homage to the royal standard being flown over Buckingham Palace when the Queen is in residence.

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The Flag of the Secretary of the Interior

Even in a kleptocratic administration, where staggering incompetence and strident opposition to an agency’s core mission are hailed as the best qualifications for running it, Zinke has managed to stand out as particularly venal and ham-handed; no small achievement.

In any case, his chest-beating over American energy dominance has caused the prospect of oil rigs appearing off the Big Sur Coast to be mentioned in papers around the country, if not the world, and has California politicians and environmental organizations promising the fight of the century.

So how likely is it to actually happen?

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Platform “Irene” off Vandenberg Air Force Base is currently California’s northernmost offshore oil production platform

Not very.

First, the state, which strictly forbids new oil exploration, controls all waters within three miles of the coast. Next, the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary prohibits drilling, which, absent an act of Congress, pushes drilling at least 10 and as much as 30 miles off the coast – and into some pretty deep (i.e. expensive to drill in) water. And finally, and probably most importantly, there doesn’t appear to be much prospect of finding significant oil or gas off the Big Sur Coast. The much touted Monterey shale underlying inland portions of Monterey County does not extend offshore in the Big Sur area. Proposed lease sales in the 1980’s were actually withdrawn due to the poor prospects.

All in all, Big Sur’s chances of achieving world domination through oil production appear slim.

Wind energy is another matter.

For several years now, an outfit called Trident Winds has been touting their plan for a massive wind farm stretching from Pt. Estero, just north of Cayucos, up to somewhere off Ragged Point, at the southern end of Big Sur’s South Coast. They’ve asked the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to lease them some ocean for this purpose and BOEM has now identified a patch of ocean running from somewhere off Gorda to south of Morro Bay as having good potential for wind energy development. At least one other company, Statoil Wind US, has also expressed interest in developing a wind farm in the area and may be competing with Trident Winds when BOEM gets around to auctioning off wind development rights – something which could happen as early as this year.

Trident Winds envisions a field of floating 400-foot towers, with blades reaching as high as 584 feet above the water. The size of the project is usually described as being around 100 towers, but as Trident calls it a 1,000 MW project and each turbine is rated at 6 MW, at least 166 towers would be needed for the project to reach its advertised capacity.

Even with 100 towers, this project would be at least 20 times larger than any existing floating wind farm, and it could potentially produce a lot of power. For comparison, the large, fossil-fuel fired power plant in Morro Bay, which closed in 2013, was a 650 MW plant. This was once considered huge. The nearby Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is rated at 2,256 MW and is slated to close in 2025 – probably not coincidentally the very year that Trident hopes to bring their wind farm on line.

Before that can happen, though, the project’s potential impacts will need to be examined and, as with most wind farms, visual impacts are likely to become a major bone of contention. While the project’s location is often stated as “33 miles off Morro Bay,” which makes it sound far enough out to sea to have little, if any, visual impact, it would actually be only 15 to 20 miles off Cambria and not much more than 20 miles from Ragged Point. From the ocean front bluffs, the 400-foot towers would be more than high enough to be easily visible in good weather, wind turbines would be silhouetted against the setting sun and, on clear nights, the navigation lights on the towers would be hard to ignore.

Add to this concerns over harm to migrating whales, harm to the local fishing industry, harm to pelagic birds (wind turbines are notorious bird killers), general dissatisfaction with the centralized power generation model, etc., and it’s easy to see why wind energy developers prefer a lightly populated stretch of coast.

In the end, the real meaning of “energy dominance” may be, as ever, that large projects get built in places where people are too few, too poor, or too powerless to effectively resist. If that’s the case, Ryan Zinke can relax. Energy dominance has already been achieved in America.

Notes:

The Trident proposal has already come under fire from groups as disparate as the World Shipping Council (interferes with established shipping routes) and the Santa Ynez Band of Mission Indians (impacts to an extremely important ceremonial location).

Click here to view a Facebook page run by opponents.

Click here to view a presentation prepared by Trident Winds for the Morro Bay City Council.

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One Response to Oil vs. Wind: The Big Sur Coast and the Struggle for Energy Dominance

  1. Thanks, Keith, for your explanation and well-targeted comments.

    There are demobilized deep-sea oil rigs “parked” in the beautiful Moray Firth on the east coast of Scotland, monstrous detritus of the North Sea oil boom, now dwindling. Wind turbines at 400 feet above the ocean surface sound like more accidents waiting to happen.

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