Green Energy or Oil Independence?
Edited by Andy Ross
America should reduce its dependence on imported oil. But are we
combating global warming, or are we distancing ourselves from hostile and
unstable regimes? The popular reply is we need to do both and the goals
reinforce each other. But these two national energy goals are frequently in
C1 Mitigating climate change requires curtailing not just consumption of oil and gas, but also of coal, which has even higher carbon dioxide emissions.
C2 Oil independents and climate greens face conflict over oil substitutes that emit no carbon at all. Climate-change activists often oppose large hydroelectric dams and even wind and solar projects. And nuclear energy remains anathema to them.
C3 The vastly different time horizons. Energy security advocates see the need to focus intently on what must happen within ten years. Climate greens are accustomed to looking out over four decades and more.
Consider four scenarios whereby the U.S. economy and security are threatened if oil imports continue to grow:
S1 The rapid rise in the price of oil continues and accelerates. The transfer of wealth to potentially hostile countries enables those nations to purchase the most advanced military technology and the human expertise to further develop and deploy it.
S2 War breaks out in the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf shipping lanes are blocked. Oil from the entire region can't get to market and prices spike wildly. The chief beneficiaries are Russia, Venezuela, and Nigeria.
S3 In a repeat of 1973, OPEC to uses oil as a weapon of political blackmail. Calls for the U.S. to abandon Israel might then come not directly from OPEC, but from NATO allies.
S4 Scarce supply sets up a serious confrontation between major customers, like the U.S. and China, as each tries to assure a stable supply. The suppliers could play one powerful customer against another.
It doesn't help that the issue of energy security has been so thoroughly
conflated with the concern about climate change. Global warming may be equally
serious, but it is broader and more diffuse. If the oil-independence lobby
remains content to ride the coattails of the climate greens, energy security
makes no precise claim on the public's attention.
Coal currently generates about 50 percent of the nation's electricity, and that
percentage could rise if electric vehicles become popular. Many oil independents
favor a high gasoline tax. Climate greens usually prefer a carbon tax.
About half of 1 percent of U.S. electricity now comes from wind driven turbines.
In a few European countries, the percentage is much higher. One-fifth of
Denmark's power is generated by wind, as is 9 percent of Spain's. Europe's wind
industry is subsidized, but the industry may soon be competitive without them.
Drawing power directly from sunlight raises fewer environmental objections than
does power from wind. But solar energy output large enough to displace our
current consumption of fossil fuel might easily require about 6 percent of the
combined land area of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and
Texas. This land would consist of desert that is nearly uninhabitable for
humans, but long and inefficient high-voltage power lines would be required to
convey the electricity from those remote areas.
Biofuels and Others
Converting sunlight to energy through the medium of plant life takes far more
acreage than "planting" solar collectors in the desert. Worse, the land on which
biofuel plants are cultivated is also valuable for growing food. Ethanol will
probably never be energy efficient until a much higher proportion of a given
plant material can be converted to fuel. But environmentalists may object to the
cultivation of genetically modified biofuel crops.
Greens have consistently supported conservation and efficiency. By some
estimates, nearly half of the nation's yearly energy is lost through inefficient
technology or wasted by carelessness. In 2002, a study done at Cornell
University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences calculated that changes in
transportation, construction, lighting, and manufacturing processes could lower
U.S. energy consumption by 28 percent of what it would otherwise be in 2020.
O1 The returns produced by conservation must ultimately diminish. Capitalists may do an adequate job of managing scarcity, but they really thrive by exploiting excess. Would capitalism be less exploitive just because its regulatory framework stressed conservation over growth?
O2 No matter how efficient a society becomes at conserving energy, the drive to use more of it seems inexorable. Even after strict conservation measures petered out in 1985, the United States continued to become more energy efficient. But the total amount of energy consumed keeps rising.
Throughout history a nation's collective wealth has correlated closely with the abundance of energy. Conservationists rightly urge us to put a greater premium on sustainability. But if sustainability and abundance can be achieved, the country would probably find that option preferable to strict conservation.
Policy proposals for the prevention of global warming are so varied and so
ubiquitous that fighting climate change has become a proxy for all things
environmental. Keeping petrodollars out of the hands of dictators is a concern
that takes its place in line.
is a writer and financial adviser in Marin County, California.
AR As soon as the announced motive for trimming the American lifestyle is oil independence, the call will come for military action to call the petrodollar dictators to heel. People will say that if we have to suffer anyway, at least we can make sure the oil moguls suffer too!