Thursday, January 26, 2006

Scale of Independence

In case you haven't run across their ads for it, Chevron is hosting an interesting discussion forum on energy issues at Recent topics have included improved conservation and stretching out our oil and gas supplies. The current subject is energy independence vs. interdependence; I posted the following comments on that issue there, and I thought they might be of interest to the readers of this blog:

"The last year in which the US was 100% self-sufficient in energy was 1957. Today, we use 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy in all forms, per year, while our production has plateaued at 70 quads. Balancing that equation, either by adding new supply or putting in enough efficiency to reduce our consumption to equal our own production, would require a change equivalent to all the energy we currently get from coal and nuclear power, combined. Factoring in that the magnitude of our energy deficit has doubled in the last decade, the likelihood of achieving independence any time soon is negligible.

If we raise the bar to require going off oil entirely (40 quads/year) the goal recedes even farther. Nor is there any single technology or set of technologies available today that can close these gaps within less than two decades, based on the most aggressive turnover of vehicles and capital stock that can be realistically imagined.

So this isn't a philosophical debate between the virtues of independence and those of interdependence; we have no choice. We must make a virtue of necessity and focus our efforts on the margins, where market prices are set. Reducing our energy consumption by 5% and shifting 5 quads per year (about 2.5 million barrels per day) from oil to natural gas would have a profound impact on energy markets, particularly if it were part of a larger strategy to replace further increments with large-scale renewables, such as biofuels.

Achieving even this modest level of change will require a combination of commitment, persistence and sacrifice that we haven’t experienced in decades. But, unlike independence, it could actually be done and would pay huge dividends by exerting leverage on our remaining energy imports."

Even though the discussion site is sponsored by a corporation as part of a PR campaign, I think the subject is important and the ideas diverse enough to encourage all my readers to visit WillYouJoinUs and post your own thoughts. While you're at it, you may also want to read this excellent article on energy security in this week's Economist.

By the way, an abbreviated version of my posting of January 10 was printed in the Letters section of yesterday’s Wall St. Journal (subscription required.)

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