This past week, I published an article about renewable realists, and how they should remain strong, in fact, vigilant, in the pursuit of clean, renewable sources of energy for a sustainable future. Here, I will outline some interconnected stories to the issues of energy, climate change, and national security. We need well informed citizens to keep these issues in the public focus, with an eye for new, real answers that solve our problems rather than pushing them off for a later time.
Let’s start out with a summary of current circumstances.
Main Problems of the Current Energy Situation:
- Energy hurting the economy: Prices have gone up for oil, gasoline, coal, and electricity, to the point that both customers businesses of all walks of life are feeling the pinch at the pumps and the costs of manufacturing and transporting goods have gone up along with energy prices. The demand for energy continues to increase, and with it, costs.
- Climate Change: Our carbon-intensive collective lifestyle has pushed the world’s atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases toward a tipping point, after which we may see no chance of turning back, with melted icecaps, rising sea levels, flooding, millions of climate change refugees, the consensus of scientists worldwide is that life as we know it would be greatly negatively affected by the resulting rises in worldwide temperatures. Imagine great increases in flooding, ecosystem collapses, societal collapses, and even diseases that may be spread by pathogens able to live in warmer climates moving on to people who never had faced and built immunity to them. Scientists are predicting that there is great potential for the Earth’s poles to be iceless in summer months within the next five years.
- Global Security: The above two situations are compounded by their implications on national/world security. Being so dependent upon oil in general and foreign oil more specifically limits the options for how our nation acts diplomatically and militarily. Basically, it forces our leaders to act a certain way because their hands are tied by governments who control large amounts of oil. Add the implications of impending climate change over the coming decades, skyrocketing costs from higher fuel demand and dwindling supplies, the addition of climate change refugees, and border problems throughout the world — you will see a monstrous problem has emerged. When these constraints are placed on a great many world leaders, the problem is multiplied and all the more complex.
To see marked improvement on these interwoven issues, we need large energy sources that are renewable, very low or basically no-pollution, much cheaper than oil and coal (which have dramatically increased in price over the last decade), and something that improves the economic and security of the U.S. and the world at-large. The world is waiting for an economy able to take on the huge expansion of the available technologies of wind and solar power to make them more cost effective for smaller economies. Mired in expensive, dirty energy sources, it’s time for the U.S. to step up to the plate and meet that challenge.
Let’s discuss some news stories from the past weeks that are shaping these issues, ones that may have a significant impact on how the policy debates regarding these issues are shaped over the coming months, and try to find common trends and possible solutions.
Governments Subsidizing Oil
Matthew Philip discussed this issue in an article a while back, here on EHI, regarding the environment and oil, but the New York Times just published a story regarding other countries subsidizing oil (and its fuel products) for their citizens. This has a mixed effect for the U.S. the world. On the one hand, it allows people to continue to consume, because they can still afford the gas, diesel, and other fuels, because of the subsidies.
Therefore, their consumption does not decrease as prices increase, because their governments are cushioning the impact of those higher prices (the citizens don’t feel the full effect of those price increases). This is good in the sense that because it continues to keep demand for oil high worldwide (and leads to even higher demand), it forces policymakers, companies, and individuals in the U.S. to look at other alternatives, like electric cars or hybrids, running mostly off of a clean energy grid, powered by wind and solar. As the costs of contemporary fuels increase, those alternatives are literally more cost effective and overall more attractive.
This is bad in the short-term, and potentially long-term. As demand increases, costs go up, but because those people are able to increase demand relatively independent of price increases (because of subsidies), the demand continues to increase, increasing pollution and making even more dire national security situations, as unstable countries and political leaders who own large oil supplies and can control the flow through transportation channels as well, gain more influence in world affairs.
The solution is to move forward with clean energy supplies (wind and solar) and infrastructure necessary for both energy transmission and hybrid or all-electric cars to be traveling our highways or even becoming energy storage devices that charge when they are idle and can resell energy back to the grid during times when the sun is not shining as much or there is less wind in a certain area. Then, once that techonology is widespread and made cheaper by economies of scale, it can be distributed further, transforming the world’s economy and future status (by reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases).
Politicians for Offshore Drilling
Many politicians have recently called for offshore drilling, most notably President Bush, who lifted the federal moratorium on offshore drilling (though Congress would have to do the same for it to happen) and Republican Presidential Nominee, John McCain, who is also in favor of offshore drilling.
What’s wrong with this picture? It’s irresponsible and is irrespective of what experts have said about the situation. Experts have said that it would take about a decade before any of that oil would come to market. Beside that fact, more oil wells have come online under President Bush, only to see the price of oil triple. No, I’m not pinning the blame of increased prices on Bush per se, but I’m pinning him with pining to the oil industry and potential voters for McCain who are antsy for even a sign of relief at the pumps. The very same goes for McCain, who we’ll discuss in more detail momentarily.
Such shortsightedness is not far from becoming actual policy, if, for example, McCain were to win the presidency and push for such a policy. His calls have led to a big boost in campaign funds from the oil industry, by the way. But Republicans are not the only ones pandering for votes; Harry Reid is facing a split in the Democratic Party on the issue, as he tries to make sure the issue of high gas prices doesn’t hurt Democrats in the coming election. Such pandering show the opposite of the leadership that is needed on this issue, one that has been shown greatly of late by former Vice President, Al Gore.
John McCain’s Lies Regarding Offshore Drilling
McCain is flat out lying about the offshore drilling situation or is repeating someone else’s lies and should get his facts straight. Given McCain’s recent historical misstatements (read: lies) about how the Iraq war has unfolded, I’m not holding my breath on him getting his facts straight.
First, he states that oil drilling and transportation are safe, even though he himself had to cancel a campaign photo opportunity on an oil rig just last week because of (depending upon who you talk to) either an oil spill in the Mississippi River or bad weather (Hurricane Dolly). Safe? More on that later. McCain touts that not even Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were able to cause any spills even though, according to Grist, the hundreds of spills, collapsed rigs, and damaged pipelines, due to these very storms, could be seen from space. By no stretch of the imagination has this proven to be an industry that is safe for the environment.
Second, McCain has stated, first that drilling would bring some psychological relief (this amid the ridiculous claims of one of McCain’s former top advisers, Phil Gramm, who stated that the U.S. was in a, “mental recession,” and that we had become a “nation of whiners”). After that didn’t fly as a credible assertion, McCain just started either lying or being played for a fool by repeating the oil industry’s lies about how quickly the oil would be able to come to market.
McCain has said that in some instances, within a matter or months, he is told by industry insiders, there could be more oil to market. Why does McCain get away with stating such lies, when the Energy Information Administration, under the current administration, has said, offshore drilling “would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices.” McCain, it seems, is full of it himself, played for a fool for repeating others’ lies on this issue, or both. It puts him in lockstep with Bush and Cheney on this issue, that is on the side of oil companies, who will lie to perpetuate an industry that is out-pricing itself against other, cleaner technologies.
Liars will be called what they are. We do not endorse one party or another on this website, and this should be a non-partisan issue, but has been highly politicized by folks in both major parties. On this issue, John McCain is a liar.
Gore’s Big Challenge
Al Gore has done a lot since leaving public office in early 2001. He has emerged as a strong voice to combat global warming, earning a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar for his activism. But he’s not satisfied with having boosted public awareness and support of better environmental policy regarding global warming. Now, he’s going further, enlarging the political space, as he says, so that politicians in office can discuss real solutions to these problems. Shame on both parties’ leadership for not taking bigger, better steps than calling for more oil.
Sure, Barack Obama, the Democrats’ Presidential Nominee, is not calling for offshore drilling, and is planning to spend $150 billion over ten years for clean energy sources, but where are his colleagues on this, and where are such ideas as a “Green Corp,” or other ideas. It’s a start, but it will take trillions, experts say, to create the infrastructure needed, and while the private sectore can and should kick in some of that total, more government funds will need to be shown to push forward the needed changes quickly.
Gore’s proposal, that is to change the U.S.’s electric grid over to 100% renewables in ten years, is buttressed by the situation we find ourselves in, which he succinctly states:
“When we look at all three of these seemingly intractable challenges at the same time, we can see the common thread running through them, deeply ironic in its simplicity: our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges — the economic, environmental and national security crises,” Mr. Gore said. “We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that has to change.”
So why are politicians in power not willing to talk about anything beyond cutting emissions a measley few percentage points to 1990 levels by some certain year (what a horrible argument to be having) or as that overachiever-in-chief, President Bush’s policy has been, to slow the rate of growth in emissions? Well, for McCain, it means pandering to a group of voters for votes and to an industry for money, and for some Democrats, like Reid, it’s failing to call Republicans on this bad policy that exacerbates an already burdensome problem, have a national discussion about this problem, and try to find a bipartisan way toward a solution. Both sides doing their share of pandering on this issue provides a lack of leadership for the country. Obama seems to be one of the leaders in his party willing to see through offshore drilling for what it is: a non-solution.
Gore has taken on the risk of opening up this big idea, and now that many say it is a great idea (though maybe overly optimistic) it is up for grabs for any politician or group of politicians to lock onto as a policy goal and take it all the way to reality.
What Else Contributes to the Problem?
- Voters may not be attuned to the long period of time before oil is actually pumped from the ground and that experts are saying that it takes years to even get to exploratory drilling. This makes this a situation ripe for pandering, which has happened, and then the other party has to decide whether or not to risk taking on the leadership needed, or also pandering to some voters, who the media are allowing to be lied to about the facts of offshore drilling, by a major party candidate for President (John McCain). This is a complex issue, hence the need for complex analyses.
- People get trapped thinking about being able to stick with their old economy, of burning gas for transportation, of wasting electricity, of using coal for energy, if only carbon can be sequestered or safely stored underground. Ethanol, which has had a backlash, still persists as a mandated additive in many states’ gasoline. Democratic Presidential Nominee, Barack Obama, is very supportive of ethanol, more so than John McCain, who changed his position from the 2000 election to now support ethanol. Obama’s stance is obviously likely due to his close ties to the ethanol industry, even having campaign staff who lobby on behalf of the industry. Breaking peoples’ feeling of sticking with the old is difficult, but necessary if we’re going to move the economy to a clean fuel future. Ethanol has its current problems, but should certainly be looked at as an alternative fuel, if it can be derived from non-food sources, like garbage or crop refuse.
- With the report last week stating that about one fifth of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas reserves are likely under the arctic ice cap, and near the edges, which may soon be accessible (ironically due to global warming) people may stick with the attitude that drilling more will solve the problem, because there is more oil. In reality, it postpones the eventual end of oil supplies for the problems to exist longer and to worsen before they improve.
- The cost of oil is down to about $120 from it’s peak of almost $150 a few weeks ago. While the price is still high and is unlikely to dip below $100 anytime soon, it tends to break the momentum toward more sustainable fuel solutions because people may see some relief, or hold out hope for such relief on the horizon.
- High prices of oil also can lead to even more drilling, often in areas where it was not worth it to do so before because of the associated high costs, so now oil companies are drilling in places that were previously not profitable to drill in (like parts of the Canadian tar sands).
- Oil is not safe, and oil companies do not follow proper precautions. One of our worst ecological disasters ever, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, recently had its punitive damages reduced from what once totaled $5 billion to $500 million. And such pandering to an industry that can afford to pay for the damage they have done, even over a twenty-year span, if not within a year, should have to do so, as this would deter future careless hiring practices and other precautions not taken, both of which contributed to this disaster. And don’t forget Grist’s note, above, of the hundreds of instances of damage from hurricanes (which come by every year, by the way). The oil industry is more confident that they can get off easily when they make mistakes, and are therefore less likely to take necessary precautions.
The conglomeration of issues against the use of dirty fossil fuels, like coal and oil, can also work the other way, compounding issues that might favor drilling in the public’s eyes, these above points, taken together, may move public opinion toward more drilling, even though drilling in fact is detrimental to the main problems listed at the beginning of this article, the energy and the economy, global warming, and national security.
There is no simple solution to the problems listed here, but there are examples of promising proposals, like Mr. Gore’s, mentioned above, to reach a sustainable future that could hold promise of solving parts of this issue.
- Mr. Gore’s proposal to move to a 100% renewable electricity grid is realistic in its optimism, because the technology exists and we need the political clout and financial means of conquering this task. Energy transmission, smart grid technology, the harware for producing the energy, all would take trillions of dollars to produce over that decade, but we’re already paying similar amounts into other economies for oil. Transforming our fleet of cars to electric or hybrid electric is a large way to move toward this future. The prevalence of political cowardice is the main hurdle for this proposal.
- Fuel from garbage is a fledgling start-up arena full of small companies trying to commercialize the process. Because this would add little carbon to the atmosphere, it may be part of a future or a transition fuel, similar to the role natural gas could play.
- Boone Pickens, an oilman from Texas, has begun a plan and even spending millions on advertisements to buttress support for his billions of dollars invested in both wind farms and transmission lines to move electricity in Texas from rural areas to urban ones. Texas State is slated to spend about $5 Billion on transmission lines, as well, further moving the state toward a sustainable future, and showing that this can be done with both public and private investment. Look for Texas to be an example for other states, or the nation on a whole, to follow, on the energy crisis.
- Opportunities abound to transform our transportation, from having more electric or hybrid cars to increasing public investments in public transportation infrastructure, making it safer, faster, more accomodating, and available to more customers.
From reading this article, you may be more distressed because of the complexity of the issues here. But, really, that is only because it is a lot of information with a great deal of confounding factors and players, some of whom add to the confusion with disinformation campaigns (I’m looking at the coal and oil industriees, and their political lackeys). Even Mr. Gore said, from the quote above, that the situation is, “deeply ironic in its simplicity: our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges — the economic, environmental and national security crises.”
“Deeply ironic in its simplicity.” Yeah, it is. And what does it come down to? Try to separate those who want to do something new from those who want to do more of the same. More of the same is using more oil, drilling for more oil, and not putting the necessary political support behind drastic measures needed to alleviate the problems listed above. If you undermine the need for oil by finding other sources of energy for growing economies, the influence of those polical actors, large oil companies and nations controlling huge amounts of oil, is also undermined, and that is one of the greatest benefits to look forward to in a attaining a more sustainable future. Those nations and oil companies can transform and earn a seat at the table, also, by becoming active partners in moving toward renewable sources of clean energy. Just look at Boone Pickens.
Again, I say, renewable realists, remain vigilant!