Thursday, October 14, 2004

Just Shy of the Complete Picture
Gregg Easterbrook writes insightfully about energy. His latest piece at New Republic looks at the presidential candidates' energy policies. It is also an excellent overview of the current energy security debate in this country. While I recommend this article highly, I can't resist picking a nit or two, and mentioning something that goes well beyond nits. Since it's such a long article, I'll keep my comments brief.

First, either Mr. Easterbrook doesn't quite grasp how the oil markets work, or he has oversimplified for effect. Oil is sourced as it is because of a variety of factors, mainly centered on quality, price, and availability. Rather than saying, "I think I should have oil from Saudi Arabia", a refiner would say, "I need oil with the following characteristics, delivered in this timeframe, and costing no more than this discount off of West Texas Intermediate (WTI)." That makes backing out Persian Gulf oil a good more complicated than simply cutting our overall oil demand by a corresponding amount, because it involves refinery configurations that are expensive to change. But this is a nit compared to my other concern.

If I've said it once, I've said it here a hundred times: improving energy security can't be accomplished solely by reducing demand. Without a major initiative to open up off-limits US oil reserves (e.g. ANWR, or offshore California), by the time Mr. Easterbrook's 1/3 improvement in miles per gallon works its way through the system, US domestic oil production will have declined by an amount similar to the efficiency savings, and we will be importing just as much or more, including more from the Persian Gulf. Of course, if we don't improve vehicle efficiency, our future imports will be even higher.

And one last nit: while I'm pleased that he mentioned the real-world technology of integrated gasification and combined cycle combustion for coal, I think he is selling short its competitiveness in a market where natural gas is $6 or more per million BTUs, as far as the eye can see. (See my blog of March 18.)

So read the article, but consider that we might actually need the energy policies that both candidates are proposing, not just one or the other's.

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