12 August 2007

Why we Need a New Energy Policy

We are addicted to oil. Thomas Friedman has recently completed a series on Discovery Channel called “Addicted to Oil.” Mr. Friedman is perhaps one of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable people on the Middle East. His columns generally exude common sense. He has written several very good books I recommend you read.

Drive around and look at the SUVs and you will see why we are addicted to oil. Take a look at the cars around you as you commute to work. Our homes are built with very energy inefficient materials. There is no requirement for using the most energy efficient appliances, furnaces, and air conditioners. Our transportation system is largely energy inefficient. Using oil for transportation is a 20th century technology. Depending on what papers you read and believe we are fast approaching or already have surpassed peak oil.

While I do not think that global warming (also known as climate change) is a “problem of potentially catastrophic proportions”, the more immediate problem are despots like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and radical Islam and their hold on oil. Our addiction gives them money. They use that money to harm us. In my opinion that is far more reason to the kick the oil habit than some polar bear floating on a chunk of ice. From a purely geopolitical view it just makes sense to start phasing out oil. Aside from thumbing our noses at the religious zealots in the Middle East and whacked out despots in our backyard, there are other benefits to kicking the oil habit as well.

An important benefit would be for America to become a leader in renewable energy technology. Let us be the leader and we will reap the financial and political benefits. Kicking the oil habit will make our economy stronger and less vulnerable to the whims of extremists. It would also take the wind out the extremist’s sails. We can leave the Middle East to rot in its backwardness and narrow thinking.

Now for the hard part. How do we detoxify America and kick its addiction? First, let us recognize that this will not be accomplished overnight. It will take decades. But we need to start now. We need to have a Manhattan-esque project to develop the alternatives. Kicking our addiction to oil means diesel-hybrid cars and trucks, electric cars, nuclear energy, solar power, wind power, coal with carbon sequestering, hydro-power, etc. It will take a combination of all of these to slowly withdraw the gas pump out of the collective vein of the United States. We also need to rethink the distribution of goods within the United States. Grow and buy locally. Do we really need fresh strawberries in January?

One thing we cannot afford to do is think we can “grow” our way to energy independence. By that I mean using biofuels. Biofuels are no better than oil in my opinion. Why? Growing our fuel has all sorts of unintended consequences. It diverts food from the system to energy production and causes the price of food to rise. For example, using corn to produce ethanol increases the cost of milk, beef and tortillas. The processing of corn to make ethanol requires an incredible amount of water. Are we to dewater our aquifers and lakes to make fuel for our cars? Other unintended consequences will include farming marginal land that was set aside for conservation through government programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) because farmers can make more money. Farming marginal land will lead to more soil erosion, increase sedimentation in streams and lakes, worsen water quality, destroy wildlife habitat, and deteriorate forest and wetland resources.

It may require increasing taxes on gasoline to make more expensive alternatives more palpable to the pocketbook. It may require more incentives within the tax code to purchase and install energy efficient systems in your home and purchase and use fuel efficient cars and trucks. However, I think that if we harness our resourcefulness we can develop more efficient technologies that are also less expensive. That is what the Manhattan-esque project would be expected to accomplish. Now we just need someone with the leadership capabilities to pull it off. Someone that is not afraid to tell the American people the way it is and the way it ought to be; someone that can bridge the gap between environmentalism and security and economics. All three benefit from kicking the oil habit.