The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I think we can’t, I think we can’t

In his article on energy independence, Steve Chapman starts out strong:
The end of President Bush's time in office is still 14 months away, but already, I can guarantee two things. First, the next president will be elected on a promise to lead the nation to energy independence. Second, the promise won't be kept.

But he then proceeds to tell the reader all of the the reasons why we can’t become energy independent:
If energy independence were truly feasible, it probably would have been achieved back in the 1970s, after President Richard Nixon embraced it. In 1973, we imported about a third of the oil we used, compared with 60 percent today. Domestic production was at its peak. OPEC was in the process of turning the energy world upside down by quadrupling the price of oil …

It's enchanting to imagine swearing off foreign oil in favor of ethanol made from wholesome Illinois corn, or fuels derived from West Virginia coal. But even if all the corn grown in this country went toward ethanol, it would cut our gasoline consumption by no more than 12 percent. In cost terms, ethanol can thrive only with lavish federal subsidies. In climate terms, the switch offers small benefits at best.

So why does ethanol get treated like the prettiest girl at the prom? Because our leaders' motive is pandering to American farmers and corporations, not making sound energy policy. If you want to know the main reason the federal government subsidizes ethanol, I've got two words for you: Iowa caucuses.

As for coal, schemes to turn it into liquid fuel for use in cars and planes have been around for half a century -- including a dismal failure launched during President Jimmy Carter's administration. Besides being expensive, reports a recent article in Scientific American, "liquid coal produces more than twice the global warming emissions as regular gasoline and almost double those of ordinary diesel."

That minor flaw might be fixed -- but only by raising the cost even more. Of the other potential alternative fuels, none looks capable of competing without massive government help.

Reducing our consumption of oil would be a good thing, if only because it would reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. But replacing oil with alternatives that also pollute is an exercise in missing the point. And as ethanol demonstrates, a drive for energy independence is likely to veer off into wasteful handouts to powerful interests.

Like all major politicians, all captains of industry, and many other people with a direct interest in maintaining the status quo, Chapman become the voice of the little engine that couldn’t. He conveniently forgets viable technologies that are available today – nuclear, geothermal, solar, even wind energy – that with substantial government and private capital investment could, over one decade, cut our dependence on foreign oil dramatically. He doesn’t ask why we’re not making and aggressively marketing plug-in hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles today, not in 2011. These technologies are ready right now and could cut gasoline consumption significantly over ten years. He forgets that a gasoline tax could do much to fund a crash program to get the job done and he further suggests that Americans and our economy couldn't take the pain.

He’s wrong, but too many people in positions of leadership secretly agree with him, and as a consequence, Chapman and others like him becomes the voice of the little engine that couldn’t. Not because it can’t but because it won’t. Not because the path to a better energy future isn’t relatively clear in the short and middle term, but because it’s easier to do nothing, except talk.