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Six Reasons the United States Needs to Get Its Energy Act Together
by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

 
   
 
   

You can't always get what you want.
--The Rolling Stones

We don't know exactly what the price of gas will be by the time you have this book in your hands, but whether it's high, low, or somewhere in between, the fact of the matter is just the same: this country faces a huge, complicated, and scary energy problem.

Not only is it huge, complicated, and scary, it's daunting for most of us because it's nearly impossible to understand unless you're some kind of full-time energy wonk. We all recognize symptoms such as soaring gas prices and pricey home heating oil. But when it comes to the disease -- what's causing the country's energy problems and how to cure them -- that's another story entirely. Confused R Us is more like it.

It's not that the information isn't out there. Type "energy policy" into Google, and you'll get tens of millions of results. Some of the stuff is biased and manipulative, and some of it is downright harebrained. But there is plenty of information from smart, responsible, fair-minded experts who really know this issue and want to help. Unfortunately, when most of them talk, they might as well be speaking Greek (or Urdu or Basque). All of a sudden, it's "peak oil" and "strategic reserves" and what's happening at the New York Mercantile Exchange. Want to know about possible solutions? Prepare yourself for treatises on "carbon sequestration," "hydraulic fracturing," and the promise of "photovoltaic cells." Not only is it hard to understand, it can often be incredibly boring. Say the words "energy policy" often enough, and you could undermine the entire profit structure of the sleeping pill industry (not to mention upsetting the little counting sheep from the mattress company).

Even so, we're convinced that the vast majority of Americans do want to know what can be done to ensure that the country has safe, reliable energy at nonstratospheric prices. Nearly all of us want to protect the planet, the economy, and our way of life. But sorting out the country's choices is tough -- almost as tough as facing up to them.

Pulling the Strands of the Problem Together

The first step is to pull the far-flung pieces of this debate together in one place. There's the energy issue with its assorted disputes over OPEC, oil company profits, speculation in the energy markets, and how to reduce the country's dependence on imported oil. Then there's the environmental debate on how to reduce the damage human beings do to the planet -- global warming, carbon dioxide emissions, carbon footprints, pollution, that sort of thing. And finally, there's the economic fallout when the competition for energy heats up and supplies start getting tight. That's what happened in the first half of 2008: skyrocketing gas prices, major airlines in financial free fall, and businesses of all sorts hurting because families have to spend more on gas and electricity and have less money left to spend on everything else.

These three issues -- energy, environment, and the economy -- are all intertwined, and some experts say the country could at some point get itself trapped in a "perfect storm" with all three problems coming to a head at once. In the movie The Perfect Storm, George Clooney sailed his fishing boat right into "the storm of the century" in the North Atlantic. It was spine-tingling to watch, but he killed himself and his crew doing it.

For the United States, sailing right into the triple threat we face on energy is an equally bad idea. Unfortunately, we've been backing ourselves into an energy corner for a good forty years or more, and the country simply has to start making some responsible decisions beginning right now.

Six Reasons to Act

Let's get started with the basics. Here are six reasons the United States needs to get its energy act together. There isn't much debate about these facts, but there is plenty over what to do about them.

The country is using more energy than ever. The U.S. population is growing, we're doing more driving than we did a few decades ago, and we have more energy-eating devices than ever. Just think of all the technology we've added to our lives in the last generation: computers, microwaves, DVDs, MP3 players, a cell phone for every member of the family. Since 1949, the total amount of energy used in the United States has tripled, and we're not done yet.1 Americans are expected to consume about 25 percent more electricity over the next twenty years.2

Other people around the world are using more energy too. According to the best estimates, global demand for energy is expected to grow by 45 percent over the next two decades,3 and specialists who study energy supply and demand are asking some fairly scary questions about where all that energy is going to come from.4 The Earth's population is growing, but it's not just that. Roughly a quarter of the world's people don't even have electricity yet. To improve their lives, developing countries will need a lot more energy than they have today -- 73 percent more by 2030, based on expert projections.5 What's more, people in developing countries such as China and India are now becoming prosperous enough to want to live the way we do. They like cars and TVs and computers and warm houses filled with gadgets. Don't get us wrong; this is a good thing. People everywhere naturally want the comforts money can buy. But it also means more competition for energy, higher prices, possible shortages, and potential environmental damage on a scale we've never seen before.

We're relying on forms of energy that will eventually run out. In the last 150 years or so, human beings used about 1 trillion barrels of oil. Some experts say we could use up another trillion in about thirty years.6 There is a big debate (which we cover later) over whether and how quickly humankind is running through the Earth's supply of oil, but some of the predictions are getting uncomfortably close.7 We can certainly look for more, and no doubt we'll find it, but some experts worry that we're rapidly using up the oil that's relatively easy to access. There's also some concern that in North America at least, the remaining natural gas supplies are in locations where it will be difficult (and costlier) to extract them.8

As supplies get tighter, energy costs more. Energy prices tend to go up and down, and perhaps the only bright spot in a recession is that energy prices generally fall because people use less of it (factories and businesses closing, fewer people driving and traveling, etc.). But what ever the price of oil may be when you read this book, the overall trends are just not in our favor. As recently as 2004, many analysts thought oil would stay at about $30 a barrel for the next decade.9 In 2008, the average for the year was just under $100 a barrel, even though prices fell dramatically in November and December in the economic downturn.10 Many experts believe oil prices will start rising again when economies worldwide begin to recover and the competition for oil heats up again.11 But it's not just oil. Prices for natural gas more than doubled between 2002 and 2008.12 Prices for the uranium used for nuclear power also doubled between 2006 and 2008.13 When more people want more of something, and it's not lying around all over the place, and it takes a long time to find it and put it into usable forms, prices tend to go up. Since we consume energy when we make, ship, and use everything from big-screen TVs to Pop-Tarts, the price of fuel spills over into our entire economy.

The U.S. energy supply system is shaky. In 2007, the United States used about 7.5 billion barrels of oil and imported 58 percent of it.14 Unfortunately, a fairly large portion of the world's oil reserves lie in some of its most unstable regions (like the Middle East) and in the hands of potentially unstable governments (like Nigeria and Venezuela). That means a whole host of things can go wrong -- embargoes, war, revolution, terrorist attacks on pipelines. As drivers learned after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a natural disaster that disrupts shipping and refining can upset the balance too. But it doesn't require an international crisis or an act of God to give us problems with our energy supply. Our electric power grid and oil and natural pipelines are aging. The older they get, the more they're prone to failure.

Oil, coal, and gasoline -- the kinds of energy we use most -- can be harmful to the Earth and everything living on it. Burning fossil fuels such as these causes pollution and acid rain, and according to most scientists, it contributes to global warming -- at least the way we do it now. But it's crucial to make an important distinction. The United States has made good strides reducing air pollution and acid rain because of the Clean Air Act and better technology in our cars and power plants. Unfortunately, we haven't done nearly as much to reduce the emissions that contribute to global warming, so that's the next big challenge. The problem of global warming is "unequivocal," according to the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.15 It's "clear," according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.16 There's "a growing scientific consensus," according to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office.17 ExxonMobil, which at one time supported research by climate change skeptics, now runs ads highlighting the need to address the problem.18 Even people with lingering doubts seem to accept the main point. The grumpy but always intriguing Charles Krauthammer considers himself a global warming "agnostic," yet he says he "believes instinctively that it can't be very good to pump lots of CO2 [carbon dioxide] into the atmosphere."19 Okay, that's it. We have way more than a quorum.*

Waiting for the Perfect Solution

So there we have it: six solid reasons to rethink the country's energy policy. Yet despite the dangers, the United States has been stuck in first gear for years now. We haven't upped domestic oil production much because of environmental concerns. We haven't moved vigorously to develop alternatives because we frittered away our time arguing about whether global warming is real. We invest in the scientific research and technology to help solve our energy problems only when energy prices get high. Since we're so fond of big cars and big houses filled with labor-saving devices, we've barely scratched the surface on conserving the energy we do have. We've spent several decades just sitting around waiting for some perfect, cost-free, "please don't ruffle our feathers" solution to come down from the sky.

That hasn't happened yet, and it won't. But there are lots of reasonable options most of us can live with. There are lots of innovations that could help us down the road if we get to work on them now. This is going to be a long battle, though, and what happens in Washington, D.C., is just the beginning. What we need is a state-by-state, power-plant-by-power-plant, business-by-business, car-by-car, house-by-house rethink.

The United States desperately needs to get a move on in making these choices, so that's what this book is about: laying out the challenge and explaining the options. Let's have the debate, make some decisions, and get on with it.

We started the chapter with a little bit from the Rolling Stones: "You can't always get what you want." If you've got Mick on the brain now, maybe you remember that the song goes on to say that you might be able to "get what you need." Not such a bad description of our situation right now. If the United States can get its act together on a reasonable, longterm energy policy, we may well be able to get what we need. If not, let's hope the next song that comes to mind isn't "Paint It Black."

NOTES
1 Energy Information Administration, Energy Consumption, Expenditures, and Emissions Indicators, 1949-2006, Table 1.5, www.eia.doe.gov/emeau/aer/txt/ptb0105.html.

2 "New EIA Energy Outlook Projects Flat Oil Consumption to 2030, Slower Growth in Energy Use and Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Reduced Import Dependence," U.S. Energy Information Administration press release, December 17, 2008, www.eia.doe.gov/neic/press/press312.html.

3 International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2008, www.Worldenergyoutlook.org.

4 Ibid.

5 Energy Information Administration, International Energy Outlook 2009, May, 2009. www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/ieo/highlights.html.

6 See Randy Udall and Steve Andrews, "Oil Shale May Be Fool's Gold," Energy Bulletin, December 17, 2005, www.energybulletin.net/node/11779, http://planetforlife.com/pdffiles/manifesto.pdf, and "John McCain's Energy Follies," New York Times, September 7, 2008.

7 EIA, Frequently Asked Questions -- Crude oil. Question: Do we have enough orl worldwide to meet our future needs?" http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/ask/crudeoil_faqs.asp#oil_needs.

8 EIA, International Energy Outlook, 2008, Chapter 3, Natural Gas," www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/ieo/nat_gas.html.

9 Congressional Budget Office, The Economic Effects of Recent Increases in Energy Prices, July 2006.

10 Energy Information Office, Short Term Energy Outlook, Price Summary, February 9,2009, www.eia.doe.gov/steo.

11 See, for example, Jad Mouawad, "Rising Fear of a Future Oil Shock," New York Times, March 27, 2009.

12 Energy information Administration, "Natural Gas Navigator: Natural Gas Prices, 2002-2007," http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/ng/ng_pri_sum_dcu_nus_a.htm.

13 Energy Information Administration, Uranium Marketing Annual Report, www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/nuclear/umar/summaryfig2.html.

14 Energy Information Administration, Frequently Asked Questions, http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/ask/crudeoil_faqs.asp#foreign_oil.

15 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007, Synthesis report: Summary for Policymakers.

16 American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS Board Statement on Climate Change, December 9, 2006.

17 Congressional Budget Office, Policy Options for Reducing CO2 Emissions, February 2008.

18 Steve Gelsi, Exxon Mobil Redirects Pubic-Policy Research Funds,
 MarketWatch.com, May 27, 2008, www.marketwatch.com/news/story/exxon-mobile-redirects-climate-change/stpry.aspx?guid=%7BE8735291%2DC763%2D4A82%2D982A%2DB5E38CF2D571%7D&dist=msr_3; ExxonMobil, "Rising to the CO2 Challenge," ad in New York Times, February 12, 2009/

19 Charles Krauthammer, "Confessions of a Global-Warming Agnostic," National Review, May 30, 2008, http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=ZGI0MDdiZDQ3MGI1ZGYzNWZkZTcwZWM5YzI2MWI5N2U=.
* There are lots of better people than us to explain the science of climate change. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains a Climate Change page chock-full of clear explanations from reliable sources (www.epa.gov/climatechange/index.html). NASA's page, Earth's Fidgeting Climate, is another good place to go (http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2000/ast20oct_1.htm).


That said, while we have a quorum, complete unanimity is nearly unheard of in any human endeavor. The prominent physicist, Freeman Dyson, has written extensively about his doubts. Also, if you're curious about what the disbelievers say, take a look at The Deniers (Richard Vigilante Books, 2008) by Lawrence Solomon.

The above is an excerpt from the book Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis by Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.


       
   
 
       
   

The Authors

Who Turned Out the Lights

Scott Bittle, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is executive editor of PublicAgenda.org, where he has prepared citizen guides on more than twenty major issues including the federal budget deficit, Social Security, and the economy. He is also the website director for Planet Forward, an innovative PBS program designed to bring citizen voices to the energy debate.

Jean Johnson, co-author of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, is co-founder of PublicAgenda.org, and has written articles and op-eds for USA Today, Education Week, School Board News, Educational Leadership, and the Huffington Post Website.

For additional energy resources and supplemental material, please visit www.whoturnedoutthelights.org

 
       
   
 
       
   
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