When it comes to energy policy, there is no perfect fuel. But in these debates, as elsewhere, the imaginary perfect fuel cannot become the enemy of the good.
And for the first time in recent memory, this means that nuclear energy, by all accounts a good alternative for the scale of demand we face, might be getting a seat at the table. Coal, which still provides more than half of the energy for the American grid, is cheap and plentiful, but environmentally and politically costly. And according to Popular Mechanics, it can only be “cleaned” up so much. That leaves a huge gap for other sources to fill.
As James B. Meigs writes,
Coal will never be clean. It is possible to make coal emissions cleaner. In fact, we’ve come a long way since the ’70s in finding ways to reduce sulfur–dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and more progress can be made. But the nut of the clean-coal sales pitch is that we can also bottle up the CO2 produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it’s devilishly difficult in practice.
The rest of the piece goes on to argue how we’re really talking about “cleaner” coal, rather than “clean” coal. Remember that debate over whether it was appropriate to call sex with various forms of birth control “safe” or “safer”? We might well see a similar shift in language about coal from “clean” to “cleaner.”
But what about so-called “alternative” energy sources, like geothermal, wind, and solar? Well, as John Whitehead over at the Environmental Economics blog concludes, “…potential supplies of wind and solar don’t appear to be large enough to completely replace oil and coal in the foreseeable future. If that is the purpose, then no, alternative energy can not effectively replace fossil fuels.”
So for the foreseeable future what we’re looking at in terms of the sources of our energy, in the face of growing global demand, is a mélange; coal, oil, natural gas, and yes, wind and solar, all have their place. But so does nuclear, and that’s one of the positive takeaways from President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he commended “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”
The challenging for existing energy firms will be to adjust to providing the right sources in this mixture. One way to do this is to be cognizant of the alternatives and their relative costs and benefits. ExxonMobil’s “Energy Outlook” released at the end of last year predicted that the growth of some of the newer sources, like wind and solar, would grow faster than some of the conventional sources, like oil and coal.
This means that a focus on innovation and efficiency will move some surprising players to fill the demand for cleaner energy, and the vision of increasingly transient reliance on fossil fuels might indeed come to pass.
As I wrote in 2006, “The human stewardship of oil and other petroleum-based fuels entails a responsibility to use the economic opportunities they afford to find and integrate other renewable, sustainable, and cleaner sources of energy, especially represented by the promise of nuclear power, into our long-term supply.”
Saleem H. Ali, a ‘pro-consumption environmentalist’ at the University of Vermont “argues that sometimes a nation has to extract a nonrenewable resource like oil, or tricky-to-recycle metals and gems, in order to leapfrog from dire poverty to a more diversified economy.”
“Money from oil wealth can be used to invest in other sectors. And that in turn can yield sustainable development,” Ali says.
Awhile back I sketched very briefly a view of the theological purpose of fossil fuels. On this view, “fossil fuels would thus have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy. These limited and finite resources help raise the standard of living and economic situation of societies to the point where technological research is capable of finding even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.”
This meshes nicely with the Cornwall Declaration’s statement that “A clean environment is a costly good; consequently, growing affluence, technological innovation, and the application of human and material capital are integral to environmental improvement. The tendency among some to oppose economic progress in the name of environmental stewardship is often sadly self-defeating.”
Skyrocketing energy costs have, among other effects, led to interesting political maneuvering. Specifically, the question of expanding of domestic energy resources (e.g., offshore drilling) has become live for this first time in decades. For that to happen in the current Congress, of course, requires that there be at least a certain measure of bipartisan consensus. As Michael Franc explains on NRO today, there have indeed been a few Democratic defections to the pro-drilling side. These Democrats are caught between the popularity of expanded oil and gas exploration on one side and, on the other, both the traditional Democratic allegiance to the enviornmental lobby as well as the unyielding stance of the Party’s leadership.
Lifting restrictions on drilling will assist the market in creating additional supply, even as demand has already been affected by rising prices. It is important that environmental concerns not be tossed to the wind in a rush to relieve the strain on American pocketbooks, but that seems unlikely in the current political environment. In fact, the negative environmental impact of drilling in places like ANWR has always appeared questionable. It seems more likely that opposition to offshore and other drilling was fueled by NIMBY sentiment rather than demonstrably significant environmental damage.
There is the argument that offshore drilling will have little impact on prices, at least or especially in the near future. It is important that the potential for such sources be assessed realistically and not exaggerated, but the “10 years from now” objection is not compelling. If it’s a good thing to do, then we should start. Not doing so simply pushes the horizon ten years further down the road.
By no means can I claim the ability to weigh accurately the costs and benefits of expanding domestic energy exploration. That’s why it’s important to let the price mechanism operate freely and let the market respond in turn. If lifting drilling restrictions moves us in that direction, then I favor it.
First Maxine Waters suggested that she might just want to nationalize the US oil industry; now Maurice Hinchey of New York is jumping on that bandwagon. And why wouldn’t they? It’s all the rage these days. Just look at Venezuela, which is rapidly emerging as a South American
hellhole paradise after Hugo Chavez started nationalizing everything. Why should we be left behind?
It turns out that there are a number of very good reasons to avoid that particular bandwagon. Dr. Jay Richards discussed them last night on KKLA in Los Angeles on the Frank Pastore Show. Listen in and decide for yourself whether the US should nationalize the oil industry.
Our series on the year in review continues with the second quarter:
“Surprise! Evangelical Politics Isn’t Univocal,” Jordan J. Ballor
So from issues like immigration to global warming, the press is eager to find the fault lines of evangelical politics. And moving beyond the typical Jim Wallis-Jerry Falwell dichotomy, there are real and honest disagreements among evangelicals on any number of political issues….
“How Do You Spell Relief?” Jordan J. Ballor
If Congress really wants to address the rising price of oil over the long-term, the only thing it can really do is act on what it directly controls. Congress doesn’t control supply and demand, but it does control how much it adds in taxes to the price per gallon. Why not cut or suspend the federal gas tax indefinitely?…
But anyone who reads widely in the environmental literature knows that suggestions such as Pianka’s are not uncommon. In fact, the desire for mass human death follows logically from the anti-human beliefs of some radical environmentalists. Some are more consistent in their beliefs than others. But Pianka is by no means the only person to express such opinions….
THE FUTURE OF ENERGY
Expanding supply or managing demand?
In the opening articles, five commentators address the question from different viewpoints.
ADAM VAUGHAN, online editor, New Consumer magazine argues that saving energy is the way forward: ‘By taking a number of simple steps, consumers can save energy and money – and help save the planet.’
JOE KAPLINSKY, science writer, spiked, believes that we need to greatly expand energy supply: ‘The best thing that we could do for future generations is to build a new energy infrastructure, bigger and better than the old one.’
MALCOLM GRIMSTON, associate fellow at Chatham House, argues that we need to embrace nuclear power: ‘Nuclear energy remains the only proven large-scale option that can deliver major saving in greenhouse gas emissions.’
MARK JACCARD, professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver believes that fossil fuels, particularly coal, remain central to energy supply: ‘Zero-emission fossil fuels will remain cost competitive for at least a century.’
JIM SKEA, research director, UK Energy Research Centre argues that renewables are not a panacea to all our energy problems, but ‘A variety of renewable technologies may play an important part in energy generation in the future.’
spiked is keen to find out what readers think, and you can respond to the debate here.
I would also briefly mention that you can read a related article by me here, and that in general I think the options posed in the debates subtitle (reduction of use or expansion of supply) is similar to the options posed by the problem greenhouse gas emissions (reduction of emissions or increase of sequestration).
Most of the policy recommendations I’ve seen regarding CO2 emissions have focused on reduction of emissions rather than an increases in the rate and amount of carbon sequestration (in forests and so on). There’s a lot of work to be done on that latter point, especially if largescale reduction of emissions is untenable both politically and economically for the foreseeable future.
The Wired.com blog Autopia passes along this NYT story outlining some of the fundamental challenges facing plug-in hybrid electric cars. The basic formula for the appeal of such hybrids is as follows: “The electric system runs mostly on coal, natural gas and uranium, all relatively plentiful. Cars run mostly on oil, oil and oil, which lately has been expensive. Wouldn’t it be nice to connect the two?” And as attractive an option as this might be, the NYT story writes that “despite the hopes of policy makers, engineers say there is no prospect of this happening in the near future.”
John Gartner is not so pessimistic about the short-term prospects for plug-in hybrids, and concludes, “The competition between the oil companies and electric companies will result in cleaner and more cost-efficient choices for consumers, and that we can all be happy about.”
But here’s the kicker for advocates of plug-in hybrids: The main source of electricity for the United States is fossil fuels, according to the DoE providing “nearly two-thirds of our electricity,” and more than half of that comes from coal. So it isn’t the case that moving from gasoline-powered engines to plug-in hybrids will move us away from the use of fossil fuels. It will, for the most part, simply shift the consumption from oil to coal.
That has some attractive national security implications, since “one quarter of the world’s coal reserves are found within the United States,” as opposed to our need to massively import foreign oil. It is on this basis that Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. argues, “It makes eminent sense to make as rapid a transition to those plug-in hybrids as we can.” This of course assumes that the withdrawal of international trade actually improves rather than worsens the prospects for international peace. Let’s leave that questionable assumption aside for now, which contradicts Bastiat’s observation, “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.”
With respect to the “green-ness” of plug-in hybrids, their environmentally-friendly image belies the fact that such hybrids will to a large extent be running on the energy provided by coal. Until our nation’s electricity comes from renewable and alternative sources of energy, such as nuclear power, the environmental attractiveness of hybrids will remain illusory.
In a previous commentary examining some related aspects of these issues, I ask rhetorically, “Just how many coal-powered SUVs have you seen lately?” Well, if there were plug-in hybrid SUVs, they would to a great extent be coal-powered…and not so green as you might first think.