“Our nation faces a growing energy challenge. We must chart a new course toward energy independence.” Who has not heard some politician or media talking head say something to this effect? Who believes it? Was it more true in 2008, when the US imported 57 percent of its oil? Does the fact that we imported only 45 percent of our oil in 2012, and oil imports declined another 16% in 2013 make it less true? The fact is that energy independence as a national security issue—as the politicians and Cato Institute Sophists posit it—is a big lie, a very big lie.
This lie actually poses a threat to our national security, due to our acceptance of the policies that result from our believing the lie—policies that are drawing us painfully close to the point of no return from an impending global climate change catastrophe, while assuring that demand will outstrip supply.
In part, the threat lies in the fact that we not only import less than half of our oil, but we now export over half of our domestic oil production. The danger in the myth is the absurdity of the notion that we should fully exploit finite domestic resources to gain independence from what some would say are unreliable sources of supply. This should be obvious on its face. The fact that oil is a finite resource first drew wide attention during the Arab oil embargo of the 70s, and this fact alone raises the question of what we would do once we exhaust our resources. Would such an event not actually make us dependent on imports?
The “Oh, but there is still the unreliability of supply” argument might seem reasonable, but is it? Possibly, but no. Currently, there are 27,000 capped oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico alone. In fact, the well beneath BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig was being sealed with cement for temporary abandonment when it exploded, and BP alone has capped about 600 wells to be held in reserve. Capping wells is a common practice that is used to keep prices stable (some would argue high), and these wells are in addition to the strategic reserve.
The Chicken Littles who spout the “unreliability of supply” argument are, of course, not talking about peak oil theory. They would, in fact, be the same people who deny the validity of the theory. Consider for yourself whether the “drill, baby, drill” mindset makes sense if oil and gas reserves are declining to the point that they are no longer economically viable.
The extent to which the rate of decline in demand over the past decade will provide a reprieve from the consequences of peak oil are anyone’s guess. Trends in development of new technologies and accelerating interest in green energy, as well as a push for conservation are however providing an offset. While switching to natural gas is greatly reducing demand on coal and oil, there is a conundrum in this. Natural gas has itself attained its peak, and may actually be dumping more hydrocarbons into the atmosphere than coal.
Greater fuel efficiency in passenger automobile engines, the growth in popularity of electric, hybrid, and transitioning to natural gas and electric public conveyance, including growing impetus toward development of commuter trains further add to the break from fossil fuels. Following Clean Technica can give the impression that new technologies and technological advances providing greater efficiencies seem to come out almost daily. With current consumption at approximately 18,690,000 barrels per day, and estimated domestic reserves of 160 billion barrels, the US reserves alone could provide our energy needs well beyond 23 years as the current rate of usage declines.
Why, you might ask, are our politicians lying to us about the need for energy independence. The facetious answer would be, “do you really need to ask?” Money, jobs, and political self interest is the short answer. The long answer draws the full spectrum of current and emerging energy technologies into the issue.
Oil companies will likely have an energy role in the foreseeable future, at least as long as fossil fuels still provide the energy needs to fuel our war machinery, though alternative fuels and technologies are already being explored and financed by the Pentagon. Though electric and fuel cell technology could theoretically supplant fossil fuel driven engines for our ground transportation needs, they could hardly meet the demands placed on them by the airline industry and modern war machines. They could, in example, not replace the jet fuel used to power fighter and bomber aircraft, or even the turban driven Abrams main battle tank. This too is being addressed, just as the Nazis did nearly eight decades ago.
Coal, part of the mix advocated by any “energy independence” advocate, will likely also continue to provide the energy needs to power our electric grid for some time to come—albeit an indeterminate and short time. In desperation, they have created the rhetorical myth of “Clean Coal” technology to lull us into a false sense that there is no urgency in transitioning to renewable energy. The truth is that despite alternative energy production bringing the percentage of our electricity generated by coal fired plants from 50 percent to 39 percent since 2002, coal still dumps 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide—36 percent of total U.S. emissions—into our atmosphere annually.
Both those invested in the oil and coal industries, and the legislators in those states most vulnerable to the effects of declining demand know that the heyday has already passed. Moreover, they know that the development of alternative energy technologies that are beginning to replace fossil fuels are accelerating—and will soon supplant them. Just for perspective, it’s worth noting that renewable energy accounted for 14.3 percent of the domestically produced electricity in the United States in the first six months of 2011—and has continued to grow since, while demand declines.
While the energy independence argument is just so much rhetorical gibberish intended to deceive people into accepting the status quo, there are very real dilemmas associated with failure to transition to renewable energy technologies. Quite aside from the costs involved in producing and developing renewable energy systems, these dilemmas revolve around the cost and timing of abandoning fossil fuel technologies.
Not only do the oil companies make astronomical fortunes, but they and the industries that serve and supply them are deeply invested in the capital means of production and distribution. Everything from the exploration equipment that finds the underground reserves to the pipe that follows the drill head into the ground to the tanker truck that delivers the gasoline from the refinery is specialized. Huge investments in pipelines, refineries and supertankers yet need to be recovered. Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy would reduce the value of these assets to scrap metal, and doing so would also mean oil companies would have to surrender their market position in the oligopoly they struggled to secure for themselves over the past century and a half.
In addition to these costs, the human and consequent economic costs of transitioning to renewable energy will be epic. From exploration through exploitation and transportation to refining, and transportation to the consumer, the fossil fuel industry is labor intensive. Not only would the transition result in the loss of millions of jobs, but entire states, like West Virginia, the economies of which are almost solely dependent on exploiting their fossil fuel reserves, would be thrown into economic collapse.
The great and tragic irony of this dilemma is that the people who live in these coal producing regions keep voting for the promise of preventing “needless regulation” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that is killing the coal industry. While EPA regulation undoubtedly have some effect, the fact is that coal is fading into history due to all those factors mentioned above. It just cannot compete, and , as its fortunes fade, so do those of the single industry communities it once supported.
Economic rot in a post-coal region. The highway into Centralia, Pennsylvania, where the coal mine that once supported a community has been burning and abandoned for over 75 years.
Examples of the rot following the decline of coal are everywhere in the carbon belt. In example, the once thriving city of Shamokin, Pennsylvania, first lost its place in the textile industry, and has fallen into a downward spiral as coal became less relevant. At the intersection of two major highways, Pottsville, Pennsylvania, provides another example. While not a coal producer itself, the city is flanked by Minersville to the west, Port Carbon to the east, and Shenandoah to the north.
Possibly the worst dilemma of all is the potential that global climate change will reach a point of no return. We are already at the point that climate change has raised global sea levels about 8 inches since 1880, and the rate of rise is accelerating. According to a new analysis by non-profit research organization Climate Central, the rate of acceleration may be faster than previously thought. The probability that “100 year floods” occurring by 2030 are on track to double or more. The danger this poses for the five million people living at or below four feet above sea level in coastal areas of the US is however dwarfed by the worst case scenario:
In quick summary, if enough cold, fresh water coming from the melting polar ice caps and the melting glaciers of Greenland flows into the northern Atlantic, it will shut down the Gulf Stream, which keeps Europe and northeastern North America warm. The worst-case scenario would be a full-blown return of the last ice age – in a period as short as 2 to 3 years from its onset – and the mid-case scenario would be a period like the “little ice age” of a few centuries ago that disrupted worldwide weather patterns leading to extremely harsh winters, droughts, worldwide desertification, crop failures, and wars around the world.
Some skeptics will dismiss this potential catastrophe, because climate scientists cannot pin down a date. They may even dismiss it despite the fact that climate science has for decades been able to associate oceanic phenomena like the el Niño to weather extremes. While some of the skeptics may in fact believe they are correct, it is likely safe to say that the bulk of them will be the same people who dismiss climate change for self interest—self interest founded upon the interests of the fossil fuel industry.
Whether time remains to transition to alternative and renewable energy is uncertain. Coastal flooding is already a fact with terrible consequences, and climate scientists cannot dismiss that the Gulf Stream will not shut down this year, or for decades to come. Too many variables, including political resistance, also stand in the way of forecasting when the displacement of fossil fuel technologies will result in economic hardship. What is certain is that little to nothing is being done to avert these catastrophes, and the threat to our national security and our very lives increases with every delay that primarily Republican resistance imposes on addressing the issues.
What is also certain is that overcoming the political resistance will be a necessary first step. We will need proactive leadership that will not wait until we reach the point of no return. Reactionary Republicans and apostate Democrats alike will need to be swept aside if we hope to create the needed partnership between government (federal and state), business, organized labor and education. We will need to make the necessary capital investment in research, development and production of renewable energy resources, from bio-gas, fuel cells and geothermal energy to tidal and wind electric systems and networks. More importantly, we will need to retrain and educate those who work in the fossil fuel industry, as we deliberately transition to alternative energy sources within as short a time as possible.