Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Turning No Into A Qualified Yes
Today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) includes an excellent editorial explaining some of the reasons why natural gas has become so expensive in this country, when it seemed so cheap and plentiful only a few years ago. The Journal paints a picture of a conflicting welter of environmental arguments that have shifted the perception of gas from the fuel of choice to a hazardous despoiler, but cannot even get solidly behind one of cleanest energy technologies on the planet, wind power. Building on this, I would like to offer a radical proposal for the environmental community that would enhance its standing and make it a greater force for positive change.

Although many commentators have criticized the Administration's proposed energy legislation as a patchwork of corporate welfare and environmental rollbacks, the main alternative is just a partisan reprioritization of the same basic programs, with a few obvious exceptions such as on drilling in ANWR. What is really needed is a national environmental consensus on energy. This would require a national convention of all environmental groups, large and small, to hammer out a comprehensive energy strategy for the country, for today and into the future.

The meeting would have to start with some basic facts, foremost among them the national energy appetite of 100 quadrillion BTUs (quads) per year, only 6% of which comes from renewable energy, with nearly half of that from hydroelectric dams. In fact, solar and wind power, though growing rapidly, together accounted for less than a quarter of one quad in 2003. That means that any practical energy plan must rely heavily on some mix of oil, coal, gas and nuclear power to cover the bulk of the country's energy needs for at least the next decade, at the same time it promotes more renewables.

Designing such a plan would require tough tradeoffs, such as weighing the total impact of offshore natural gas drilling and LNG imports against more coal-fired power plants or nuclear plants. It might also logically include removing arbitrary barriers to wind development, if wind is to grow fast enough to contribute meaningfully at the scale we must consider. It also means that the impact of efficiency measures must be fed in gradually over time, in line with real-world adoption rates, rather than in huge blocks as a way to veto unpopular energy modes.

Now for the kicker: the price of admission to this convention should be an agreement to abide by the majority vote of the assembly and a pledge to terminate all lawsuits and protests against any projects or energy types supported by the convention, along with eliminating support for any groups that refuse to abide by the convention's findings. With stakes so high, it's not hard to imagine a meeting like this taking a year or more to reach consensus.

This idea may be a fantasy, but I think it's an attractive one. If environmentalists want industry to do the right things, they must speak consistently and recognize the long-term nature of investments in this area. If gas is better than coal, for example, then gas must be available in sufficient quantities to displace coal, even if that means drilling off the coast of Florida and bringing LNG into Long Beach harbor. Simply saying "no" to everything is no longer good enough, because we have exhausted all the options that don't require some kind of tradeoff--if they ever really existed. Some carefully-considered yeses, now, would lay the groundwork for enduring partnerships with industry that would benefit both consumers and the environment.

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