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Energy Independence Isn’t Very Green

Monday, March 31, 2008

There’s broad agreement that America should reduce its dependence on imported oil, but far less agreement on why. Are we combating global warming, or are we distancing ourselves from hostile and unstable regimes? The popular reply is that it hardly matters — we need to do both and the goals reinforce each other. But these two national energy goals are not only different but frequently in conflict, and effective policy will not be forged until those conflicts are addressed. Meanwhile, we ’ll continue to see watered down legislative efforts similar to the Energy Act of 2007 and its predecessors. When dependence on foreign oil first became a major issue in 1973, the country imported less than a third of its petroleum; it now imports over 60 percent.

It was never easy to convince the public that we should curb oil use for security reasons alone. As foreign sources grew more numerous, credible energy experts insisted that this diversity of supply provided ample security. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was widely accepted that no single country, nor even the entire opec cartel, could pose a real threat. The fact that America was devoting increasing military resources to protecting the international oil trade was viewed as just another consequence of being the “sole remaining superpower.”

So in pleading the case for lowered oil consumption, energy security advocates gratefully accepted a new rationale — concerns about climate change. In 1973, those concerns were barely a blip on the political radar screen, but they have grown steadily since about 1988. “Stop global warming” has become a remarkably effective rallying cry, even inspiring award-winning documentaries and tv specials. Commercial interests have also latched onto this movement. Automobile makers find it easier to market gas-electric hybrid cars in the interest of saving the planet from excessive warming than in saving the country from Middle Eastern extremists. The ethanol lobby, too, identifies its raison d ’etre more with greening the planet than with energy security. Combating climate change somehow seems more inclusive and less confrontational than mere energy security. For all these reasons, advocates of the latter (let ’s call them the “oil independents”) have eagerly accepted a strategic partnership with the climate change establishment (the “climate greens”). Unfortunately, however, the partnership rests on unstable ground.

Three fault lines

There are three conspicuous fault lines between the positions of oil independents and climate greens. The first and most obvious is that mitigating climate change requires curtailing not just consumption of oil and gas, but also of coal, which has even higher carbon dioxide emissions. Since c02 is fingered as the main culprit in man-made global warming, it isn’t surprising that coal becomes continually less welcome. But America has far more coal than it has oil or natural gas, and from the viewpoint of energy independence, that can ’t be ignored. The partners’ attempts to bridge their differences on coal are not yet promising.

Second, oil independents and climate greens face conflict over oil substitutes that emit no carbon at all. Climate-change activists have deep environmentalist roots. These often lead them to oppose large hydroelectric dams and even wind and solar projects. And one important noncarbon fuel — nuclear energy — remains anathema to the environmental establishment. The most recent report of the un’s International Panel on Climate Change (ipcc) halfheartedly notes nuclear energy’s positive attributes, but few climate greens concur. This is more typical view:

“We believe that the financial and safety risks associated with nuclear power are so grave that nuclear power should not be a part of any solution to address global warming. There is no need to jeopardize our health, safety, and economy with increased nuclear power when we have cleaner, cheaper solutions to reduce global warming pollution. ” — June 2005 statement signed by 313 national, international, regional, and state environmental organizations, including Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth.

Of course, not all global warming activists agree. Some, like nasa scientist James Lovelock, are convinced that the planet’s atmosphere is fast approaching a tipping point, beyond which the warming trend will become irreversible. Lovelock sees nuclear as the only quick fix, but his views have made little headway. Environmental allies may adopt similar rhetoric about urgency, but are remarkably nimble in accepting a more long-term view of matters when urgency appears to force unpleasant choices.

This contretemps over nuclear power indirectly illuminates the third fault line in the partnership between energy independents and climate greens: the partners ’ vastly different time horizons. Ironically, it isn’t the nuclear issue itself that sets up this conflict between climate greens and oil independents — most energy security advocates have given up on nuclear as a primary solution because fission raises its own set of security problems. But energy security advocates ’ sense of urgency about our energy problems is nevertheless as strong as Lovelock ’s, and they see the need to focus intently on what must happen within ten years.

Climate greens, on the other hand, are accustomed to looking out over four decades and more. A recent ipcc report predicts a rise in temperature of 2–11.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and a rise in the sea level of 7–23 inches by 2100. While the ipcc does include mitigations that should be accomplished by 2030, much of its report addresses changes that would only begin at that time. This patient approach has become more entrenched after shorter range benchmarks proved feckless. The Kyoto protocol of 1997 envisioned reducing greenhouse gases (ghg) to their 1990 levels, with a further 15 percent reduction by 2012; but few signatories have come anywhere near that goal. Canada, for example, committed to lowering its ghg emissions to 94 percent of their 1990 level. In 2004, its actual ghg emissions were 26.6 percent above the 1990 level.

If reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil is viewed as a security matter, then it makes little sense to focus on what might happen 40 years hence. Seismic geopolitical changes can occur far more rapidly. If energy self-sufficiency is important at all, it is important because of events that can easily occur within a decade.

Four fast-moving scenarios

Consider four scenarios whereby the U.S. economy and security are threatened if oil imports continue to grow or even remain at their current level.

One: There are no major market disruptions, but the rapid rise in the price of oil that occurred between 2003 and 2007 continues and perhaps accelerates. The transfer of wealth from the United States to potentially hostile countries enables those nations to purchase the most advanced military technology and the human expertise to further develop and deploy it. Today ’s petrodollars are largely benign: They finance the world’s tallest buildings, indoor ski-slopes, and artificial islands in the shape of palm trees. But with an upheaval such as occurred in Iran in 1979, those petrodollars could also build the largest aircraft carriers and buy the most accurate missile defense systems and military robots.

It doesn’t help that the issue of energy security has been thoroughly conflated with the concern about climate change.

Two: There are major market disruptions. War, either civil or cross-border, breaks out in the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf shipping lanes are blocked. Oil from the entire region can ’t get to market and prices spike wildly. The chief beneficiaries of this would be Russia, Venezuela, and Nigeria, each of which would be well positioned to take geopolitical advantage of the situation while also obtaining an economic windfall.

Three: In a repeat of 1973, a few Gulf states convince opec to use oil as a weapon of political blackmail. But this time, the weapon might be wielded with greater sophistication to create, perhaps, a wedge between the U.S. and Europe. Calls for the U.S. to abandon Israel might then come not directly from opec, but from nato allies.

Four: Scarce supply sets up a serious confrontation between major customers, like the U.S. and China, and each tries to assure a continuing source of supply at a stable price. The suppliers, sensing their increased market power, could play one powerful customer against another, escalating the contest well beyond competition for oil.

The swiftness of oil’s geopolitical impact can hardly be overestimated. In 1980 the ussr still appeared near the height of its power. Its armies had just entered Afghanistan and threatened the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, Soviet clients continued their expansion in Latin America and Africa. Yet, scarcely ten years later, the Soviet Union imploded. A major factor in this sudden reversal of fortune was the empire ’s near bankruptcy as the market value of its oil reserves collapsed. History has even more dramatic examples of petroleum ’s high stakes. When its oil source in Indonesia was cut off in 1941, the Japanese empire responded with a desperate attack on Pearl Harbor. Six months earlier, Germany took the mad gamble of attacking Russia. One of Hitler ’s main targets was Caspian oil, especially since the British were frustrating his attempts to wrest control of the oil fields in the Middle East.

As to the four scenarios outlined above, the combined likelihood of at least one of them occurring seems much less remote than was once the case. In the 1990s, Americans were more optimistic; victory in the Cold War created a sense of invincibility that dwarfed concerns about the availability of natural resources. Although that feeling of invincibility is gone, many remain unconvinced that oil dependence constitutes a clear and present danger.

There are many reasons why the alarm is unheeded, but it doesn’t help that the issue of energy security has been so thoroughly conflated with the concern about climate change. Global warming may be equally serious, but it is broader and more diffuse. If the oil-independence lobby remains content to ride the coattails of the climate greens, energy security makes no precise claim on the public ’s attention. And this is a time when precision and purpose are sorely needed.

The trouble with coal

Coal is a hot topic whenever oil independents and climate greens start to talk seriously. Coal currently generates about 50 percent of the nation’s electricity, and that percentage could rise if electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrids, become popular. Many oil independents favor a high gasoline tax, which would help hasten that popularity. Climate greens usually prefer a carbon tax, which would have no similar effect, since carbon emissions from coal are even greater than those from oil or natural gas.

In order for climate greens to consider coal even marginally acceptable, its carbon dioxide would have to be kept out of the atmosphere. That process is not impossible — carbon capture techniques have been around for decades. In fact, captured c02 is even pumped into mature oil fields in order to boost yield.

Carbon capture appears to make sense because it fits well with the technology of the most modern coal plants. These newer plants first convert the coal to gas, which burns more efficiently than does coal in its powdered form. The extra energy required to gasify the coal would negate that added efficiency, except that the heat generated in that process is also harnessed to drive turbines that produce electricity. The good news is that while these “integrated gasification combined cycle” (< span class="smallcaps">igcc) plants are costly to build, they’ll save money in the long run. The bad news is that the igcc process doesn’t automatically capture the c02. That requires even more steps and additional capital expense.

Though the science of carbon capture is well understood, making the process economically feasible isn ’t. Carbon sequestration takes place mainly in demonstration plants. In 2003, a few leading coal producers formed a partnership with the Department of Energy to create the “FutureGen Alliance.” Once lauded as “Tomorrow’s Pollution-Free Power Plant,” the project’s costs have risen as its uncertainties have mounted. One question — whether stored c02 can be adequately secured — is eerily reminiscent of the debate about nuclear waste. In any event, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman recently announced that the Bush administration was pulling its support for the project. FutureGen ’s private partners hope to get this decision reversed in Congress, but so far the project ’s waggish critics are right: it’s “all future and no gen.”

Do oil independents and climate greens at last have a common agenda? Well, not quite.

Oil independents are inclined to encourage the construction of igcc coal plants now, and let carbon capture techniques mature through trial and error. Climate greens may take a gradual approach on other matters, but they have little patience when it comes to coal. Point three of Al Gore ’s “Seven Point Live Earth Concert Pledge” lays it on the line: “Fight for a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without the capacity to safely trap and store the c02.” This take-no-prisoners stance plays well to the environmental audience. Coal, after all, would never be a “clean” fuel even if its carbon emissions were entirely eliminated. As geologist Kenneth Deffeyes wrote in Beyond Oil(Hill and Wang, 2005), “coal is the best of fuels; it is the worst of fuels” — best because it is cheap; worst for many reasons besides carbon dioxide, including “smog, acid rain . . . hazardous underground mines and surface disturbing open-pit mines. ”

Particularly obnoxious to environmentalists is any proposal to convert coal to a liquid transportation fuel. This is, of course, a process that the Germans employed widely during World War II, and is now used in South Africa, which had formerly been denied petroleum because of international trade sanctions against its apartheid policies. Coal-to-liquid was also the basis of President Jimmy Carter ’s Synfuels Corporation, a pilot project that turned into a $20 billion boondoggle. In the 2007 energy bill, a proposed coal-to-liquid subsidy was ultimately defeated in the Senate.

The unattractiveness of liquid coal is one point on which oil independents and climate greens can agree. Energy security advocates believe that using coal to feed the conventional automobile is self-defeating, because this synthetic fuel can ’t successfully compete with oil.

But energy security types still see coal as an important transportation fuel since electricity is the power for battery-operated cars and electrified trolley and rail systems. And, with a nod to environmentalists, they point out that c02 emissions per mile are much lower from coal-generated electricity than from the conventional car ’s gasoline-generated horsepower. Climate greens concede that point, but quickly add that it would be better if the electricity were generated from more environmentally friendly sources. And so it would, but near-term solutions are anything but obvious. Natural gas is no real answer, either from the climate or the security aspect. The country has no abundant long-term supply, and would increasingly have to import liquid natural gas, over fierce environmental and safety objections.

At this point, the conversation often turns to the feasibility of massive investment in renewable sources. Do oil independents and climate greens at last have a common agenda? Well, not quite.

The trouble with renewables

Climate greens imagine a future in which almost all energy sources are sustainable and renewable. These include solar in all its direct forms, hydroelectric power, wind, geothermal, biofuels, and exotics like wave and tidal power. Oil independents see that future too, and advocate sizable investment in any renewable that approaches commercial viability. One might expect climate greens to urge even greater investment in renewables, since they ’re so intent upon restricting fossil fuels and nuclear power, which together account for 92 percent of all energy currently used in the U.S. But the greens’ actual support has been more halting.

If renewables are going to make any short-term impact on energy consumption, the country must radically alter its current course. The Department of Energy makes forecasts of energy usage and releases them through its Energy Information Agency. The eia foresees little increase in hydroelectric power, which is presently the nation’s only large-scale source of renewable power. The agency does project a doubling of the output of other renewables by 2030, but that merely means the nation would reduce its reliance on conventional fuels by a minuscule 2 percent. Worse, since the eia assumes more energy from all sources will be needed, the absolute level of nonrenewable energy will continue to rise. Given the inadequacies inherent in a business-as-usual approach, why aren ’t more climate greens clamoring for aggressive investment in renewables? Because countervailing pressures in the environmental community have dampened that drive. For every noncarbon source of energy — wind, solar, biofuels, hydro — there are also environmental objections.

Wind power. About half of 1 percent of the nation’s electricity now comes from wind driven turbines. In a few European countries, the percentage is much higher. One-fifth of Denmark ’s power is generated by wind, as is 9 percent of Spain’s. Germany has 18,000 megawatts of installed capacity; in Schleswig Holstein alone, one quarter of that state ’s entire energy requirement is met by its 2,400 windmills. As in the U.S., Europe’s wind industry is subsidized, but the subsidies aren’t particularly large on either continent, and the industry may soon be competitive without them. Many argue that this would already be so if the externalized costs of fossil fuel were not hidden.

Several regions of the United States, especially Texas and the Dakotas, have vastly greater wind resources than Germany ’s, but only a tiny installed wind power base. There is also considerable offshore potential on both of America ’s coasts. Nevertheless, climate greens have been rather muted in their push for the development of this resource. The most conspicuous environmental objection is the danger that windmill blades pose to migratory birds. On January 2, 2008, the lead story in the San Francisco Chronicle, headlined “The Deadly Toll of Wind Power,” recounted the efforts of the Audubon Society and its allies to shut down major segments of the huge windfarm in California ’s Altamont Pass, 30 miles east of the Bay area.

Environmental advocates who also happen to be property owners oppose windfarms because of their visual impact.

Taller towers reduce the danger of birds flying into the blades, but also raise another environmental concern — visual impacts. That’s been the main objection to a 130-turbine wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Editorial writers have noted, with irony, that local opposition has been spearheaded by nearby property owner and environmental advocate Senator Edward Kennedy. The project is also opposed by another U.S. senator, Virginia ’s John Warner, who agrees with the Navy that windfarms can adversely affect radar installations. Coincidentally, Senator Warner ’s daughter owns Cape Cod property in the affected area.

An additional problem with wind power is the vast land area that it requires. This raises a variety of issues: disturbance of wildlife habitat, loss of farmland, endangered botanicals, and loss of recreational space — in other words, the usual concerns that argue against large development. So environmentalists send a decidedly mixed message about massive windfarms: develop renewable energy, but don ’t disturb nature. On one hand, the Sierra Club has sued the Defense Department for creating a virtual moratorium on the construction of wind power plants, after the dod had apparently taken Senator Warner’s concerns too seriously. On another hand, a Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club has vigorously opposed the construction of windfarms on some Alleghany ridge tops.

Since wind power can never count on automatic support from conventional power developers, the added environmental objections are particularly debilitating. Wind power still requires a degree of subsidization to attract capital investment, but in the 2007energy bill, the 1.9 cent kwh Production Tax Credit (ptc) for wind power was not renewed. It may be added later, as it was in 2003, but the unpredictable nature of this subsidy adds risk and discourages investment. In the current bill, the tax credit fell one vote short of the 60 needed to head off a filibuster against it. Some environmental groups opposed the ptc outright; others just sat on their hands. This is an old story with efforts to develop renewables. For climate greens, as for many environmentalists, the best is frequently the enemy of the good.

Solar power. Drawing power directly from sunlight raises fewer environmental objections than does power from wind. But the biggest objection — the massive quantities of land needed for large-scale solar development — remains. Solar energy output large enough to displace our current consumption of fossil fuel might easily require 53,000 square miles of land in the desert Southwest — about 6 percent of the combined land area of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas. In long-range planning for solar power, then, the Bureau of Land Management is as important a player as the Department of Energy.

This land would consist of desert that is nearly uninhabitable for humans — but not for various other species — and the obstacles are numerous. One hurdle is the high-voltage power lines required to convey the electricity that would be generated in those remote areas. San Diego Gas and Electric is now trying to build a project known as Sunrise Powerlink in a desert east of San Diego. The local Sierra Club chapter decided to oppose the project “after a lengthy review,” saying that improved energy conservation, including installing efficient air conditioning systems and banning incandescent light bulbs, would more than meet the forecast energy gap.

Given the number of cloudy and short days in most parts of the country, rooftop power is less efficient.

For large solar plants in the desert, high voltage power lines are just one of many obstacles. National and state parks, wilderness areas, recreational areas, wildlife refuges, and suspected habitats of endangered flora and fauna all have their protectors, many of whom insist they are strong advocates of solar power “elsewhere.”

For climate greens, the ideal way to obtain solar power is the rooftop installation — photovoltaic power that comes from converting the sunlight captured on the crystalline or thin-film panels that disturb nothing and constitute no new development. Besides, this “distributed power generation” model is private, individual, and out of the hands of the big utility companies and major corporations. The problem is that rooftop power alone, given the current state of the art, is considerably more expensive than the concentrated solar power that can be obtained from large desert installations. Rooftop power, in most parts of the country, is also considerably less efficient, given the number of cloudy and short days.

Advances in photovoltaic technology may someday change that equation, particularly since remote desert installations have their own inefficiency in the form of power line loss. Especially promising, in the long run, are advances in nanotechnology that may allow for the capture and conversion of a much greater proportion of sunlight that reaches a particular surface. But this kind of futuristic speculation underscores, rather than reconciles, the differences between climate greens and oil independents. Placing the biggest bets on nanotechnology (or on other exotics like hydrogen fuel cells) only makes sense if one is focused on the next half century rather than on the next decade.

The drawbacks of corn as an energy source are a matter on which climate greens and oil independents actually agree.

Biofuels and more. Considerably higher square footage is required to produce energy from solar plants and windfarms than from fossil fuels or nuclear fission. But when it comes to land use, solar and wind are miserly compared to the most popular renewable energy source — biofuels. Converting sunlight to energy through the medium of plant life takes far more acreage than “planting” solar collectors in the desert. Worse yet, the land on which biofuel plants are cultivated is also valuable for growing food. In fact, some biofuels are food; that ’s the biggest criticism of corn-based ethanol, politically favored though it is.

The drawbacks of corn as an energy source are a matter on which climate greens and oil independents actually agree. Corn ethanol has powerful support from the farm lobby, but not from staunch energy security advocates like James Woolsey, the former cia director. When Woolsey promotes the development of ethanol, he stresses the cellulosic form, which is derived from switchgrass and other plants that aren ’t used for food. Woolsey could be singing right out of the hymnal that’s used by both the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Neither energy security hawks nor environmentalists see the point of using extensive food acreage to create transportation fuel, particularly when so much energy is used in the cultivation and refining process that a positive net energy return is doubtful.

Nevertheless, there remains a looming conflict between climate greens and oil independents even on the matter of cellulosic ethanol, and this has to do with the greens ’ attitudes toward the use of genetically modified organisms. Ethanol will probably never be energy efficient until a much higher proportion of a given plant material can be converted to fuel. As second and third generation processes for converting plant matter to energy rely more on biochemical processes, genetic modification will almost certainly be involved. New microbial systems, capable of breaking down molecules and fermenting a wider range of biomass feedstocks, are the subject of experiments at universities throughout the country. As those experiments prove successful, there is a fair chance that environmentalists will raise obstacles to the cultivation of “nonnatural” plants, as they’ve done so often in the case of genetically modified food crops.

Others. These three by no means exhaust the list of renewable energy sources. There is also geothermal (effective but limited), wave power, and tidal power. Increased hydroelectric power is also a possibility, although increasing environmentalist pressure to start removing dams, as along Oregon’s Klamath River, suggests an opposite trend. At any rate, the long list of future sources of renewable power — perhaps even including nuclear fusion — always helps to inspire long-term optimism and, possibly, to increase the budget for the Department of Energy.

But no long-term solution solves the immediate problem of preventing dictators like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez from gaining more power and making more mischief. That ’s why oil independents tend to support strong investment in solar, wind, coal, and perhaps nuclear. That ’s also why they encourage the auto industry to wean itself from the conventional internal combustion engine and position itself to take advantage of all the additional electricity that would be produced. Climate greens claim to be equally aware of the urgency of the matter. So what is their short-term solution?

The trouble with conservation

Greens have consistently supported one energy policy that could indeed have dramatic short-term impacts — conservation and efficiency. By some estimates, nearly half of the nation’s yearly energy is lost through inefficient technology or wasted by carelessness. Considering that this year we ’ll consume nearly 100 quadrillion btus (quads), conservation is not merely a “sign of personal virtue,” as Dick Cheney once characterized it.

In 2002, a study done at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences estimated the energy savings that could be achieved with little new capital investment other than necessary replacements for existing equipment and infrastructure. The Cornell group calculated that changes in transportation, construction, lighting, and manufacturing processes could lower U.S. energy consumption by 28 percent of what it would otherwise be in 2020. Efficiencies were to be obtained by intelligent planning. More freight would be moved by rail and less by truck or air cargo. Buildings, both residential and commercial, would be better insulated, and whatever heating and cooling they still needed would be generated more efficiently.

But what if the country pursued conservation even more diligently? The leading evangelist of the conservation effort is Amory Lovins, who proposes a far more aggressive program than Cornell ’s. From the Rocky Mountain Institute, his small but influential consulting firm in Boulder, Colorado, Lovins promotes conservation as a radically transformational technology, rather than as a series of small steps. Unlike some of his green colleagues, Lovins also puts as high a priority on energy independence as on c02 reduction. His 2004 book, Winning the Oil Endgame (Rocky Mountain Institute, 2004), was published in collaboration with the Department of Defense. In fact, when he began promoting conservation as the road to energy sufficiency in 1976, climate issues were little known.

Lovins proposes to reduce half our oil consumption through more efficient vehicles, made of lightweight steel or composite material that would nevertheless be more crash-resistant than today ’s larger and heavier cars. He would replace another 25 percent of current petroleum with biofuels and substitute the balance with natural gas. That gas would be available because other proposed efficiencies would reduce the amount needed for heating and electricity. To induce capital markets to adopt and accelerate the entire process, Lovins envisions regulations that will limit various categories of energy production and use. Those who could readily meet the limits would be able to sell credits to those who could not. Similar cap-and-trade mechanisms have, of course, become part of the Kyoto protocol.

Lovins describes all this as a “soft energy” policy. The benefits of conservation and efficiency would become so obvious that energy regulation could be administered with a light hand. Business would earn higher profits, consumers would pay lower energy bills (because power would be cheaper and they ’d need less of it), and taxes would drop or at least remain flat. In an earlier book, Natural Capitalism (Little Brown, 1999), Lovins reports many ingenious ideas for making markets reward efficiency and punish waste. One example is a California proposal for “pay-at-the-pump” car insurance. Making liability and collision insurance premiums a direct portion of the cost of gasoline would send an immediate price signal of these costs of driving.

The returns produced by conservation must ultimately diminish; at some point, all the significant savings will have been realized.

Lovins concedes that it might take decades to realize all of conservation’s benefits, but he draws on experience to show that favorable geopolitical consequences would come sooner. When robust conservation policies were in effect from 1977 to 1985, oil consumption fell by 17 percent, even as the economy grew by 27 percent. Meanwhile, as oil prices tumbled, autocrats who depended so heavily on petroleum revenues became noticeably less strident on the world stage.

However, not all conservationists share Lovins’s faith in market mechanisms. They point out that conservation doesn’t necessarily reinforce itself. As oil prices fell in the early 1980s, conservation became less important to most Americans, both as consumers and as voters. Big, heavy passenger vehicles regained popularity, and pressure to further tighten fuel economy standards evaporated. In fact, even the existing standards were eviscerated by stealth, as automobile companies exploited the fact that sport utility vehicles were considered trucks rather than cars for purposes of computing “corporate average fuel efficiency” (café). It wasn’t until 2007, with gasoline selling at over $3 per gallon, that revised café standards, without a large loophole for suvs, were signed into law.

The United States today is the world’s largest producer of coal and of nuclear power, the second largest producer of natural gas, and the third largest producer of petroleum. Since the U.S. also has one of the world ’s highest rates of per-capita energy use, it might appear promising to address energy self-sufficiency by focusing on ways of using these abundant resources more efficiently. But Lovins and his “soft-energy” colleagues face two obstacles in convincing the nation to adopt their program. The first has to do with the nature of capitalism, and the second with the nature of energy itself.

The returns produced by conservation must ultimately diminish; at some point, all the significant savings will have been realized. Besides, what Lovins calls “natural capitalism” may not seem so natural to everyone. Capitalism has a long history of making bigger pies. Capitalists may do an adequate job of managing scarcity, but they really thrive by leveraging abundance — of land, labor, natural resources, or technology. Some would argue that the term “leveraging abundance” is a euphemism for “exploiting excess.” But would capitalism be less exploitive just because its regulatory framework stressed conservation over growth? Markets often overshoot, and in a “conservation first” system, those excessive reactions might result in accidental, but painful, shortages. Nor is there any reason to assume that those shortages would be shared equitably. Pay people not to “waste” energy, and some unscrupulous landlord will lower the thermostat beneath the comfort level.

No matter how efficient a society becomes at conserving energy, the drive to use more of it seems inexorable.

The second flaw in the conservationist vision has to do with energy itself. No matter how efficient a society becomes at conserving energy, the drive to use more of it seems inexorable. Even after strict conservation measures petered out in 1985, the United States continued to become more energy efficient. Energy intensity — the amount of energy consumed per dollar of gdp — has fallen at just as fast a rate since 1985 as it did before. In fact, energy intensity has been falling ever since 1920. But the total amount of energy consumed keeps rising. It’s true, as conservationists say, that there was a brief period in the late 1970s where energy use per capita actually declined, but that was during a period of general economic slowdown.

The word “wealth” has the same root as “well-being,” and throughout history a nation’s collective wealth has correlated closely with the abundance of energy. Conservationists rightly urge us to redefine well-being in a way that puts a greater premium on sustainability. But if sustainability and abundance can be achieved, through massive development of solar energy, for instance, the country would probably find that option preferable to stricter conservation measures.

As long as the prospect of abundance is realistic, it will be difficult to translate fuel efficiency into net energy savings. Fuel efficiency may instead continue to induce people to live farther from their workplace, occupy larger houses, travel more by airplane, and use more electronic equipment for communication and entertainment. Lovins is correct that we could perform every energy-using task in ways that are smarter, and would save both resources and money. But who is “we”? One of his examples is the energy we could save by buying and eating locally grown produce. It ’s true that Californians could easily reduce fuel consumption by giving up Chilean cantaloupe in the winter and substituting local pears and apples until California ’s own melons were in season. But would this minor sacrifice create net energy savings, or would it just reduce the cost of Chilean melons for residents of Illinois and Manitoba, who don ’t grow many cantaloupes anyway? The global economy won’t contract just because one neighborhood changes some habits.

The argument that British, French, Germans, and Japanese enjoy as good a life as our own but with far less energy use per-capita only goes so far. For one thing, Japan ’s and the eu’s energy consumption are also increasing. Besides, the U.S. has wider climate variations, far greater defense expenditures, and lower population density. Sparsely populated Canada ’s per-capita energy consumption is even higher than our own, and that’s with Canada’s minimalist defense spending. But then, Canadians may also be finding it difficult to restrain their energy consumption because their oil production has soared so dramatically in recent years. Like Norway, another developed country whose culture would be expected to appreciate the virtues of energy conservation, abundant domestic oil tends to neutralize political pressure to put conservation measures into practice. The countries whose per-capita energy use has risen to the top are Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. But even these oil-rich nations are topped by Iceland, whose energy abundance comes not from fossil fuel, but from geothermal hot springs.

Dick Cheney needlessly picked a semantic battle with conservation that he had no chance of winning. His full quote was “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy. ” Few environmentalists would ever claim that conservation is a “sufficient” basis. They will, however, surround the subject of energy use with the importance of lowering our “carbon footprint” and furthering the ethic of sustainability. Oil independents, meanwhile, find themselves caught in the middle. They have little use for the notion that we can drill our way to independence or keep the oil infrastructure intact until someone discovers an economic way to get petroleum from shale. But neither do oil independents believe in fostering the notion that energy abundance is somehow inherently suspect in and of itself.

An environmentalist’s
“Theory of Everything”

Oil independents are learning that climate greens can be difficult, often mercurial, allies. When the greens gin up political pressure by exaggeration or hyperbole, it takes a toll on everyone ’s credibility. Some of Al Gore’s staunch supporters wish he hadn’t spoken so vehemently about the sea level rising 20 feet in a hundred years, when most extrapolations suggest the likely measure is between 7 and 24 inches. And the now famous “hockey stick” projection, first put forward by Michael Mann, is proving awkward. Many reputable climate scientists now believe that this graph, showing global temperatures nearly flat for eons and suddenly rising at an alarming rate, is based on computer modeling techniques that are deeply flawed.

Sparsely populated Canada’s per-capita energy consumption is even higher than our own.

But when the climate change establishment takes a more measured approach, by stressing mitigations to be instituted over the next four decades, this doesn ’t provide much practical support for oil independence, either. Policy proposals for the prevention of global warming are so varied and so ubiquitous that fighting climate change has become a proxy for all things environmental. There is an irony in the name that Gore chose for his movie: An Inconvenient Truth. Truth it may be, but surely it isn’t inconvenient for purposes of promoting environmental policy. Just as a thought experiment, can you name one action that ’s been proposed in the name of global warming that isn’t an environmentalist goal anyway? Protection of open space, sustainable agriculture, “green” building practices, wildlife preservation, restoration of rivers and lakes, prevention of noxious gases — all of these desirable objectives are addressed in the fight against global warming. The additional matter of keeping petrodollars out of the hands of dictators is a concern that will just have to take its place in line.

To jump the queue, oil independents must leave the anti-global-warming cocoon and pursue their more direct and practical agenda. If passenger cars and light trucks can be weaned from the pump and fed by the electrical grid, the oil age will just about be over. Economies will still use lots of oil, but Persian Gulf states will no longer play the fiddle while others dance.

There is yet another reason why oil independents might be prudent to distance themselves a bit from the anti-carbon lobby. Even if the causal relation between greenhouse gases and warming temperatures is based on entirely sound science, there remains a realistic possibility that the earth ’s temperatures will cool, at least temporarily, for reasons such as unforeseen fluctuations in solar radiation. At least one reputable climate scientist, David Whitehouse, writing in the New Statesman (December 19, 2007), adduced evidence that warming trends actually ceased in 2001. The New Statesmen’s environmental correspondent, Mark Lynas, wrote a rebuttal in the January 14, 2008, edition, which is likely to dampen that particular controversy. But if average temperatures do happen to drop convincingly for a few years, political pressure to further restrict fossil fuels may easily diminish.

Just as climate greens can lose political trump cards as a result of unforeseen circumstances, so can oil independents. Somewhere in the world, vast new oil fields could be discovered that would make investment in alternatives seem much less important. But if such discoveries don ’t occur soon — and the evidence suggests that they won’t — it may yet be possible to implement national energy policy that removes the internal combustion engine, and the oil that drives it, from the apex of the industrial hierarchy. In order for such a policy to take shape, it will be necessary to overcome the political gridlock that now prevents almost any bold or decisive action on energy. Subsidized energy has become a huge, half-baked cobbler. There are too many fingers in that pie, trying to pull out too many plums.