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Jewish World Review
March 27, 2007
/ 8 Nissan 5767
Energy to burn
There is the Pledge of Allegiance-and then there is the pledge on energy. The first is revered. The second is empty. None of the programs to relieve our dependence on foreign oil (or reduce global warming) have had much impact-witness the fact that, in the past 35 years, we have gone from relying on imported oil for 35 percent of our energy needs to today, when imports supply 60 percent of the fuel we consume.
Programs that could have worked have not been implemented. Who is to blame? All of us. Really. Americans hate higher prices at the pump, even though they tend to discourage consumption. Auto companies dislike tougher fuel-efficiency standards. And politicians, of course, don't like to make tough decisions.
A perfect illustration is the history of fuel efficiency. Astonishingly, average fuel efficiency for new vehicles has dropped since 1988. Six years into office, President Bush is belatedly asking the auto industry to improve its miles-per-gallon ratings by 4 percent a year in all new vehicles. If passed-without loopholes-this would help, but less than 8 percent of the nation's auto fleet turns over every year, so it's going to take time to get a lot more fuel-efficient vehicles on our roads.
Another option is to force us to change our habits by raising taxes on gas and oil. This is another political no-no because we are a nation weaned on inexpensive gasoline: Americans can and do drive everywhere in our very large country, and in large swaths of the nation there is no public transportation, so a car is the only way of getting to work.
What about recovering more oil within our borders? It is mainly in the Arctic and on the continental shelf. We might get at least a helpful million barrels a day from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but that has become such a political hot potato it is now off the table as a legislative option.
There is even less prospect of progressively attacking global warming. Energy use sustains economic growth and, in turn, enhances political and social stability. Poor countries are not going to sacrifice this growth and its benefits simply to placate the global warming fears of the rich world-which already consumes many times as much fuel per person as do poorer countries. Nor can we expect an overall reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions when China is firing up a new big coal-fuel generating plant every few days. By 2030, China will have built 2,200 coal-fuel plants! Think of this: If China and India begin consuming per capita quantities of oil even approaching those of countries like Japan, which consumes only about half the per capita energy that we do, global oil demand will double from 85 million barrels a day to roughly 170 million barrels.
Fix du jour. Given the cost gap between fossil fuels and alternative sources, with coal being the cheapest-and dirtiest-it is hard to imagine how we are going to take carbon emissions off automatic pilot.
Nuclear power? It produces waste that is very toxic and concentrated and will last forever. The uncertainty about its costs and benefits will inhibit its growth.
Windmill turbines, solar energy, hydrogen, etc., are all attractive-but years and years away from filling a fraction of our needs.
The typical American reaction is a technology fix. The fix du jour is ethanol, but it is certainly no elixir. It is expensive. Without subsidies running around $9 billion today, there would be no corn-based ethanol at all. Ethanol, moreover, uses corn and absorbs something like 20 percent of all the corn production of America, skewing the price of corn feed for poultry, hogs, and cattle, which in turn raises meat prices.
So the indirect costs are also substantial, particularly since ethanol, at best, produces only slightly more energy than it consumes. Markets can deliver low-cost energy most of the time and high-cost energy some of the time; ethanol markets deliver high-cost energy all of the time with, at best, a modest impact on our energy needs.
Now the new ethanol hope is cellulosic ethanol, which is sugar-based, but this is estimated to cost over $2.50 per gallon to produce. In other words, we are decades away from relying on this as an efficient source of energy, but our politicians will talk a lot about ethanol and vote still more subsidies for it. The "feel good" idea that ethanol is an alternative fuel will be promoted because it is the least costly politically: The tendency in government is always to choose losers requiring subsidies that will benefit selected constituencies but have minimal broad public benefit. Our leaders would rather avoid the tough issues of fuel efficiency and higher taxes.
Our energy crisis is undeniable, unending, and unsustainable. Depressingly, it joins a whole series of other serious, long-term issues, like Social Security reform, healthcare reform, and a fiscal crisis that our political system seems utterly unable to address, much less resolve.
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© 2005, Mortimer Zuckerman