Thursday, June 16, 2005

The End Of Oil

In the prologue to Paul Robert's book, The End of Oil, he discusses a contention he coined "Energy Illiteracy", where the "average" American consumer seems to know less and care less about how much energy he or she uses, where it comes from, or what its true costs are.

We are now in an age where a general knowledge and understanding of the issues involved in energy policy and international foreign relationships is of utmost importance. The United States is the largest consumer of energy by a vast margin. As the so-called leaders of the free world, this nation must act now to disrupt the impending global energy crisis, and minimize the damage caused by global warming.

Today's politicians are busy discussing the need to minimize our dependence on "Foreign Oil". This is a short-sited viewpoint that is only part of the solution. Yes, we need to minimize our dependence on foreign oil, but truth of the matter is that we need to minimize our dependence on all fossil fuels, not just "Foreign Oil". The United States, at one time the world's larest producer of oil, long ago reached its own peak oil production. Way back in 1946, America began consuming more oil than it produced.

The calls to drill for oil in ANWR are foolish. On a website for the Department of the Interior, they brag that ANWR Oil Reserves are Greater than Any State, stating that the site could produce about 1.4 million barrels per day. This might sound impressive, until you realize the, as a global economy, we are using 92 million barrels of oil per day, and that the level of production in ANWR could only be kept up for about 15 years. Here's a quote from

The U.S. Geological Study (USGS) concluded that, given America's current rate of consumption, ANWR would in all likelihood hold a 180-day (6-month) supply of oil.3 The bottom line is that it is time for the U.S. to stop thinking it can drill its way to energy independence with only 3 percent of the world's oil reserves

On a global scale, drilling for oil in ANWR does very little, if anything at all, to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. It is simply a fifteen-year supply of oil that stalls the climbing high costs of gas at the pump, serving as a buffer to temporarily alleviate any disruptions in the global oil supply.

"The End of Oil" is an excellent book which I wholeheartedly recommend. This book presents a balanced viewpoint on the issues of oil and energy policy. I strongly feel that, as members of the largest global consumer of energy, it is our duty to be informed about the issues of dependency on fossil fuels and energy policy. I strongly feel that this is the most important issue facing our country and our world today.

The key issue we need to understand in the fight to develop a renewable energy economy is the issue of cost. Whenever the discussion of encouraging renewable energy development in the United States enters the political arena, the primary complaint against renewable energies is the high costs compared to conventional energy sources, such as coal, gas, and oil. This is a false notion - Of course, on a per-watt basis, it is economically cheaper for an energy corporation to build a conventional coal-fired energy plant than it is to develop a modern computer-driven wind farm or solar-driven power plant. The issue is that the economic cost is only a small part of the total cost picture -- The true cost of developing a conventional, coal-fired or oil-fired power plant is much, much higher.

In the case of coal-fired power plants, the cost must include the environmental devastation caused by fine-particulate air pollution, sulfur-dioxide emissions, and acid rain, the high medical costs due to lung cancer, heart disease. The true cost also includes the carbon dioxide emissions produced by these power plants -Carbon Dioxide emissions that are leading directly to the global warming crisis - one that may eventually destroy our planet if we do not act now.

Politicians have known about the problems with coal-fired power plants for a long time. The Clean Air Act and the New Source Review amendment of 1977 attempted to address some of these issues. The Clean Air Act intended to require all new coal plants to install emissions controls technology, to help reduce the levels of sulfur-dioxide emissions and pollutants into the atmosphere. In an effort to minimize the sudden economic costs to the coal industry, they put in a grandfathering clause that allowed plants already in existence to continue operating without emissions controls as long as they did not undergo significant renovations.

The Bush Administration has gutted out and refused to enforce many of the regulations required by the Clean Air Act and New Source Review. Could this have anything to do with the fact that the Coal Industry provided the Bush Administration with $3.8 million dollars in political campaign contributions during the 2000 election cycle, and an additional $1.5 million dollars to the 2004 election campaign? The truth is that the Bush Administration is the most anachronistic, environmentally unfriendly, and scientifically unsound administration in history, routinely responsible for gutting out environmental regulations wherever possible. If you don't believe me, take a good look at Bush's environmental record - from the Clear Skies Initiative, to the Healthy Forests initiative, the Roadless Rule, drilling for oil in ANWR, the refusal to recognize global warming as a major threat, and the refusal to sign the Kyoto Accord. If you want to learn more about Bush's environmental record, I recommend taking a look at Bush Versus the Environment.

Now, lets address the issue of oil production and consumption. Americans, in large part, love to complain about the high costs of gasoline at the pump, which are currently hovering around $2.00 per gallon. This number hardly represents the true costs of oil. A quote from Noam Chomsky's Profit Over People:

The "Golden age" of postwar development relied on cheap and abundant oil, kept that way largely by threat or use of force. So matters continue. A large part of the Pentagon budget is devoted to keeping Middle East oil prices within a range that the United States and its energy companies consider appropriate. I know of only one technical study of the topic: it concluded that Pentagon expenditures amount to a subsidy of 30 percent of the market price of oil, demonstrating that "the current view that fossil fuels are inexpensive is a complete fiction", the author concludes. (Profit Over People, Chomsky, p. 31)

This book was written in 1999, well before the Iraqi War. You can argue all you want about it, but the true motivation for invading Iraq was to stabilize the global supply of oil, in order to minimize the chances of another 1970's Arab Oil Embargo, at least for as long as possible. The Iraq War budget is already at $350 billion dollars, with average U.S. household already having contributed $1,600 to the Iraqi War Effort. The United States currently allocates about $400 billion per year to the national defense budget.

If you had a choice, would you have really chosen to contribute $1,600 to an effort to stabilize the costs of a limited energy resource, the use of which is contributing daily to the destruction of our planet?

Lets get back to the issue of costs. Why should the general public have to pay the burdensome costs of pollution, health problems, and global warming imposed by the coal industry, while the coal industry rakes in the profits, while only paying for the production costs of coal? The reality is that pollution, health care costs, and global warming are external costs to the coal industry. This is a limitation of the free market economy that must be addresses if we are to proceed with the development of a renewable energy economy.

The renewable energies economy cannot compete on a level playing field until coal, gas, and oil economies are required to "internalize" the costs of continued reliance on fossil fuels. This change will definitely not happen with the current neoconservative administration, and I have a hard time believing this would happen under the control of the current democratic party.

What we need is a massive push for public education on the issues involved in developing a new renewable energies economy. Let's get back the book I recently read - The End of Oil, by Paul Roberts. While the viewpoint presented in this book is balanced, it is not without flaws.

In one portion of the book, Roberts discusses the introduction of a carbon tax. This a great idea -- The primary cause of global warming is carbon dioxide emissions. The true cost of relying on fossil fuels needs to include the costs to our environment caused by carbon dioxide emissions. One way to address this is the introduction of a carbon emissions tax. For each ton of carbon dioxide emissions produced by a corporation, require them to pay a flat tax. In order to minimize the immediate impact to the energy industries and the economy, make this a progressively increasing tax, with an increasing per ton surcharge put into affect each year. This progressively increasing tax would give the coal and oil industries time to adapt - as the internalized cost of carbon-based energy production increases each year, the costs of renewable energies (primarily wind and solar) will become relatively cheaper, encouraging the energy industry to adapt a more environmentally-friendly energy infrastructure.

Where Roberts goes wrong is that immediately after introducing the carbon-based tax approach, he suggests that a cap-and-trade solution would be a better idea. Cap-and-trade is a Nobel idea - the idea is that we simply need to minimize our global production of carbon dioxide emissions. Roberts states that a cap-and-trade system would be better, but simply provides no explanation or backup evidence as to why such a system should be favored over a flat carbon-based tax. A flat carbon-based tax, to me at least, appears to be a fairer, more straightforward solution to the situation - requiring all corporations to do their part to save our environment -- not allowing them to avoid cleaning up their plants simply by surrendering a share of their ill-gotten profits.

Another issue I take with Roberts is his continual insistence that the development of a sound renewable energy policy is not a moral issue. In several places in the book, Roberts insists that energy policy is not a moral issue, but I argue that it is. Let's review what we know: To do nothing - to simply accept the status quo is to ignore reality and to push off the development of a renewable energy infrastructure to future generations - it is to pass off the problems generated by our generation onto our children -- in short -- to do nothing is to act without responsibility. How is this not a moral issue?

Our nation's leadership is the most irresponsible of all. By accepting bribes from the coal, gas, oil and timber industries, our leader, George W. Bush, is passing off all of the responsibilities of maintaining a sound environmental energy policy off to a future generation, who will be much less equipped to deal with the issues.

Currently, we have the knowledge and infrastructure necessary to move forward in a positive direction. The first step is educating the public on the issues involved. Politicians are loathe to discuss the issue, and our mass media is simply to lazy and irresponsible to properly address the issue. Why are politicians so unwilling to properly address the issue? Party because of the energy industry lobbyists who would surely cry fowl if any politicians were to do so. But the American public is also to blame - We are so unwilling to even listen to the message - We are consuming way too much energy - we have become accustomed to a lavish, high energy-expenditure lifestyle that will soon come to an end - not in our generation, but in our children's generation.