Energy: What Policy?
Problems, Pitfalls, Pariahs
Out of sight, out of mind. That seems to be the public philosophy - and the political response - to something so omnipresent in our lives that it should get more than periodic lip service. We don’t pay much attention to our energy needs until we see gas hit $4 a gallon, experience rolling brown-outs, have a serious power outage, or get utility bills that could be mistaken for mortgage payments.
We have an oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico that threatens both current as well as future use in this major oil production and refining area. This is taking over where the Exxon Valdez left off and making oil an energy pariah (as if it needed more help). Chernobyl and Three Mile Island did much same disservice to the nuclear energy field. And the color of coal is the same as its environmental reputation. Recent coal mining disasters have reminded us in human lives of the danger inherent in such activities... and given opponents fuel to add to the fire.
The problems in dealing with energy are not really that complex though. Here are six steps to sanity in dealing with them.
#1 We need energy – not slogans
Our homes, factories, businesses, and lifestyles revolve around readily available, relatively inexpensive, and environmentally clean sources of energy. Can you imagine a world without it?
• You wake up to an electric alarm clock.
• You brush your teeth with a battery operated toothbrush.
• Into the kitchen you go to prepare toast, eggs, or oatmeal – all with electric or gas appliances.
• Off to the shower – water heated and pumped by electricity.
• You get dressed – in shoes and clothing manufactured in electrically operated plants.
• Into the car, or bus, or train, or plane, or transit system – all running on some sort of man-made fuel.
You get the point. Unless we are to return to a 4th century way of life, the use of energy is with us. It is not a question of whether, but how, what, and when. For the early part of the past century, we didn’t worry much about the issue. Smaller population, less demand, reasonable cost and availability, and a lack of environmental concern meant little attention. We simply plugged in, turned a key, or flipped a switch and energy appeared – we didn’t much care from where it came.
Since then, a number of things changed. The atomic era was ushered in with a literal bang in World War II. The nuclear era followed, with potential for both good and evil. The air we breathe got less “breathe-able” and the water we drink, less drinkable. OPEC became a tool for controlling prices based on whim and manipulation, not natural supply and demand. Terrorist states used petrodollars from the U.S. to buy weapons to wage war against us. Cries of “global warming” became the latest in environmental fashion statements.
The effort to separate fact from fiction and hype continues, but the awareness that energy use has an environmental connection is pretty well accepted. Despite that, we still need it! Wishing things won’t make them happen.
#2 Controlling our destiny
Our economy is in the “tank,” so demand for electricity is getting an unscheduled and undesired vacation. What happens when the economy recovers? Offices get filled, plants reopen, cars and trucks populate the roads again. Demand for electricity and other energy sources soars! Will that energy be there to meet the demand?
Not only do we need more sources of energy, we need DOMESTIC sources, specifically. We currently import 60% of our oil from foreign nations. Of the imported oil, 19% comes from Canada and 12% comes from Mexico. Does reliance on those countries affect our trade policy? How about our handling of illegal immigration and border security? Even worse, we get another 13% of our imported oil from Saudi Arabia, 11% from Nigeria and 9% from Venezuela. Is the world of terrorists affected by this? Yes – it funds them! Are decisions regarding our military involvement in the Middle East and Africa affected by this dependence? Don’t be naïve. Wake up America!
Interestingly, the Department of Energy was formed in 1977 to end our dependence on foreign oil following the gas crisis orchestrated by OPEC. Way to go Washington D.C.
#3 What are our choices?
Oil, gas and coal – fossil fuels – supply about 84% of our total energy. Wind, solar and geothermal sources supply about 1%. Nuclear power provides about 8% or our total energy, and 20% of our electricity.
To reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we have to use less of it or use more of our own. We have to drill in our own resource rich areas like Alaska and lower depth coastal waters (to avoid the deep water drilling disaster of BP which was pushed by government regulations!) We also have to explore alternative sources of energy.
Among the considerations for other sources are cost, availability, and environmental impact. Solar and wind are both costly, though some improvement is being made as volumes increase. Both, however, are unavailable when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. Biomass has potential as long as we can burn sugar cane stalks and other useless materials, and not take away food production. Geothermal has potential but doesn’t exist everywhere.
The best answer to date is nuclear energy: it’s environmentally sound, competitive in cost with oil, gas and coal, technologically advanced, and safe. There have been fewer deaths from nuclear plants in the U.S. than in Ted Kennedy’s car. Our men and women in uniform serve on nuclear powered ships, and France derives 80% of its electricity from nuclear sources. The issue of waste transportation and storage has been politicized into a problem that doesn’t exist. There is a bigger threat from terrorist attacks using bio-chemical weapons than the disposal of spent nuclear fuel rods. In addition, breeder technology and reprocessing of spent rods should be encouraged to improve efficiencies even more. The near term solution to our energy needs is staring us in the face! Ask our politicians why we aren’t using it!
#4 Political Correctness – “Black and white” matters, not Green
The conservation and global warming extremists have to be contained by the media and the politicians. There is never a fear of angering the “kooks” on the right, and there shouldn’t be for dealing with kooks on the left in the same manner. In recent years, a great deal of bias and misinformation has been promulgated as science, much of it under the banner of the always-dubious United Nations. Even the NASA scientists should be looked at a bit suspiciously with their newfound mission to help Muslims feel better about their contributions to science and space exploration. (Is there a “camel to the moon project” I’ve not heard of?)
We should encourage conservation through information and education, not by government punishment, penalty and tyranny in the form of taxation. We can explore alternatives to fossil fuels without having to artificially turn the world “green.” We can move increasingly into renewable sources without ignoring the presence of natural resources that exist today in great quantities. We can stop demonizing oil and nuclear power, and pretend that the technology, the science, the comfort, and standard of living we enjoy would somehow exist without those resources.
#5 Head in the sand mentality
For 35 years, our government has buried its head in the sand on energy. It has ignored ensuring adequate supplies for the needs of its people, it has made us vulnerable to foreign enemies, it has enriched those enemies and allowed them to wage war against us, and it has regulated and taxed us to death without any real benefit. In catering to the special interests of certain large corporations and environmentalists alike, it has ignored its duty to the people. It’s time to lead, follow or get out of the way.
The last nuclear power plant in this country was built 33 years ago, with new proposals strangled by regulatory compliance and restrictions ever since. China, on the other hand, plans to build 100 plants (and likely a lot more,) using American technology and American contractors. The last refinery in this country was built 35 years ago; if we had the oil, we couldn’t process it. We have spent billions in taxpayer subsidies for wind and solar and other “feel good” sources based on a Pollyanna notion of a “green” society. The only green we’ve seen is a lot of money lining the pockets of special interests. We’ve been sloganeering instead of engineering.
#6 The solution
There are three stages to the development of energy sufficiency and independence: near-term, mid-term and long-term. In the near-term, we have to unshackle limiting regulations and facilitate: (1) the exploration and production of oil, gas, and coal, and the construction of environmentally sound energy plants using all of those resources, (2) the construction of new refineries to handle expected oil production growth, and (3) the fast track construction of nuclear power plants and the completion of the Yucca Mountain storage facility. The State of Nevada should be engaged in the process for research, education, and construction and receive a revenue stream from the operation of the project.
In the mid-term (3-10 years), we need to provide incentives and financial support (loans and guarantees, not subsidies or grants) to improve on costs and efficiencies of renewable energy sources and nuclear technology and reduce our dependence on foreign energy to zero.
In the long-term (10-25 years), we need to focus on nuclear fusion, hydrogen fuel cells and other emerging technologies to reduce our use of fossil fuels to virtually zero. A $10 billion prize for the energy solution for the millennium would be an incentive, though the greatest incentive is still the will of able Americans.
On September 12, 1962, President John Kennedy issued this challenge: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
On July 20, 1969 – in that decade - Neil Armstrong made this immortal statement: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Lead, follow or get out of the way.