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More Oil Spills Grim Reminders of Needed Energy Revolution

This week we got news the Gulf oil spill was done, finally. Last week another oil pipe broke outside Chicago. This follows the massive “oil-letting” in Michigan that began in late July, when a pipeline run by the same Canadian petroleum company, Enbridge, Inc.,

broke and poured over 800,000 thousand gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River.

This drip, drip, drip of oil, just as scenes of the Gulf spill have faded seems sent to remind us--like the ghosts of Christmas past--that at the brink of a brave new world and a needed clean energy revolution, we just can’t seem to step across the threshold. Rather we remain mired in a fossil fuel-reliant yesterday--a veritable tar pit for dying industries and communities.

These oil spills should serve as a wake up call (as if we needed another) to get cracking with creation of the clean-tech economy. This spur is particularly needed in the industrial metros of the Great Lakes states. Here, as we first noted, the nation’s industrial might took root in the cities that ringed the Great Lakes. Here all the great industries that powered the 20th century were born (steel, chemicals, aviation, and, yes, the automobile). This industrial revolution was literally greased by the simultaneous discovery of oil in Northwestern Pennsylvania and Southern Ontario in the late 1800s. The fossil-fuel based carbon revolution was begun.

Fast forward and our Great Lakes metros are among the most carbon-dependent in the nation, with larger carbon footprints, a heavy reliance on coal-burning power, and with their dependence on cars and an auto-enabled lifestyle--the Midwest states produce a disproportionate 5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.

 These oil spills serve to remind us, that until we change our ways, our reliance on oil, coal burning power, and other fossil fuels comes with big ticket consequences for the Great Lakes. These involve consequence we can see--like the dead river outside Kalamazoo. Consequences no less real--but still harder to see and connect to our bad fossil fuel habits--like the spiking water temperatures and lowered Great Lakes levels due to climate change. And consequences we don’t see at all--like the lack of new jobs making windmills, or solar panels, or electric cars--because we haven’t been serious, or fast-enough, in embracing change.

 In this same space I recently noted that the Gulf spill had made an on-again, off-again debate about whether to drill for oil under the Great Lakes--definitely off again.

 A few years ago, we argued  what our friends in Canada had been eager to point out, that while we move towards energy independence and towards clean energy technologies---there were economic and political benefits in the interim to relying more on “friendly” oil from the fast-growing tar sands and related sources in Western Canada, versus spending our petrodollars to subsidize volatile and outright hostile regimes in the Middle East.  

 One problem with this strategy, and a concern expressed at the time by some, was the need for new pipelines to move this oil to market in the United States--and concern about whether these pipelines pose a new environmental risk. It appears that they do.

 So as much as I love friendly Canadians and Canadian oil--I am afraid the problem is oil itself, and us. Unless and until we seriously embrace and lead the clean energy revolution, we will likely have more spills, and potentially fewer new jobs, as we miss the boat of clean-technology invention, discovery, and manufacture. 

It’s not that we don’t have the horses to run the clean energy race. As my colleagues Mark Muro and Jim Duderstadt have ably demonstrated, the research institutions of the Great Lakes have the ability to be the energy innovation crucibles for the next economy.

 We just have to get cracking and lead the change. The region that helped create the high-carbon American lifestyle of the last century must pivot to become the source for low-carbon technologies, and new, greener urban infrastructures and communities. Or the communities of the Great Lakes of today will be the saber-toothed tigers of tomorrow--interesting museum pieces embalmed in our own “tar pit”’ of history.