Yesterday, the North Atlantic right whale was only an historical symbol of one consequence associated with the relentless and unsustainable pursuit of energy. Today, it is also a new symbol of renewable energy done the right way. The agreement CLF is announcing today reflects support for the pursuit of renewable energy and also demonstrates that real leadership to change how we pursue energy can come from industry itself.
The pursuit of cheap energy from the 17th century forward hasn’t exactly been what one would call sustainable. From the time the first right whale was killed for its oil to today’s efforts to take and refine oil from the Canadian tar sands, our industries have drawn down limited resources with little regard for the environmental consequences. In fact, the right whale stands as a particularly distressing symbol of our history of exploitation.
The North Atlantic right whale was so-named because it was considered by whalers to be the “right” whale to kill. It was slow, swam close to shore, and was easy to harvest – accommodatingly floating to the surface with a head full of oil after it has been killed. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the North Atlantic right whale, an animal that according to Herman Melville’s 1851 reflections in Moby Dick “would yield you some 500 gallons of oil or more” in just its lip and tongue, was hunted to the brink of extinction. The relentless pursuit of this limited resource in such an unsustainable way is the reason that today the North Atlantic right whale is considered critically endangered, with fewer than 500 animals remaining.
Despite the right whale’s lesson, our reliance on oil continues. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, the United States consumed a total of 6.87 billion barrels (18.83 million barrels per day) in 2011. Our reliance on exhaustible, limited fossil-fuel resources is causing climate change and setting into motion a series of unavoidable consequences, but still we drill for oil – albeit no longer in the head of a whale.
So while today’s landmark North Atlantic right whale agreement is a collection of voluntary measures designed to provide further protections for the North Atlantic right whale, primarily by reducing or avoiding sound impacts from exploratory activities that developers use to determine where to build wind farms, it is also so much more than that.
The offshore wind developers party to this agreement – Deepwater Wind, NRG Bluewater, and Energy Management, Inc. (owner of Cape Wind) – are willing to go above and beyond because they recognized that more could be done to protect North Atlantic right whales in the pursuit of energy. These developers’ willingness, and indeed enthusiasm, for protecting the whales reflects a new way of thinking – a 180-degree turnaround from the way other companies viewed energy generation over the last century and a half. Instead of treating the natural world as an adversary to be exploited and consumed, these companies recognize that we can accommodate natural systems (like the whales’ migratory patterns and feeding grounds), that we can avoid extracting limited resources, that we don’t have to burn fuels that exacerbate climate change, and that we can still produce the energy to fuel modern society. Now that’s the right way.