Green Energy or Oil Independence?

By Steve Stein
Hoover Institution Policy Review, April-May 2008

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 conflict.

It was never easy to convince the public that we should curb oil use for security reasons alone. As foreign sources grew more numerous, credible energy experts insisted that this diversity of supply provided ample security.

So in pleading the case for lowered oil consumption, energy security advocates accepted concerns about climate change. "Stop global warming" has become a remarkably effective rallying cry. It is easier to market electric cars in the interest of saving the planet from excessive warming than in saving the country from Middle Eastern extremists.

There are three main conflicts between the positions of oil independents and climate greens:

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.

Climate greens imagine a future in which almost all energy sources are sustainable and renewable. Oil independents see that future too. But if renewables are going to make any short-term impact on energy consumption, the country must radically alter its current course. The Department of Energy foresees little increase in hydroelectric power and a doubling of the output of other renewables by 2030, but that merely means the nation would reduce its reliance on conventional fuels by 2 percent. The absolute level of nonrenewable energy would continue to rise.


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.

Climate greens can only consider coal even marginally acceptable if its carbon dioxide are kept out of the atmosphere. Carbon capture fits well with the technology of the most modern coal plants, but no-one knows how to make the process economically feasible.

Energy security types still see coal as an important transportation fuel, since carbon dioxide emissions per mile are much lower from coal-generated electricity than from the conventional car's gasoline-generated horsepower. Climate greens add that it would be better if the electricity were generated from more environmentally friendly sources.

Wind Power

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.

Several regions of the United States have vast wind resources but only a tiny installed wind power base. There is also considerable offshore potential on both of America's coasts. Climate greens have been rather muted in their push for the development of this resource. The most conspicuous objection is the danger that windmill blades pose to migratory birds. Another problem is that the vast land area required causes disturbance of wildlife habitat, loss of farmland, endangered botanicals, and loss of recreational space.

Solar Power

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.

For climate greens, the ideal way to obtain solar power is the rooftop installation. But rooftop power is considerably more expensive than the concentrated solar power that can be obtained from large desert installations. Rooftop power, in most parts of the country, is also considerably less efficient, given the number of cloudy and short days. Advances in photovoltaic technology may someday change that equation, but this underscores the differences between climate greens and oil independents.

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.

Renewable energy sources include geothermal power, wave power, and tidal power. But no long-term solution solves the immediate problem of preventing dictators from gaining more power and making more mischief. Oil independents support strong investment in solar, wind, coal, and perhaps nuclear.


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.

The leading evangelist of the conservation effort is Amory Lovins. Unlike some of his green colleagues, Lovins also puts as high a priority on energy independence as on CO2 reduction. He proposes to reduce half our oil consumption through more efficient vehicles. He would replace another 25 percent of current petroleum with biofuels and natural gas made available by more efficient heating and electricity. Lovins envisions regulations limiting energy production and use, including a system of tradable credits.

When robust conservation policies were in effect from 1977 to 1985, oil consumption fell by 17 percent, even as the economy grew by 27 percent. As oil prices tumbled, autocrats who depended on petroleum revenues became less strident on the world stage. But as oil prices fell in the early 1980s, conservation became less important to most Americans, both as consumers and as voters.

The United States today is the world's largest producer of coal and of nuclear power, the second largest producer of natural gas, and the third largest producer of petroleum. It might appear promising to address energy self-sufficiency by focusing on ways of using these abundant resources more efficiently.

Lovins and his colleagues face two obstacles in convincing the nation to adopt their program:

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.

Oil independents have a more direct and practical agenda. If passenger cars and light trucks can be fed by the electrical grid, the oil age will be over, and Persian Gulf states will no longer play the fiddle while others dance.

Steve Stein 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!