Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Revulsion vs. Hard Choices

I don't know anyone who could gaze at the images of oil-slimed pelicans, gulls, and sea turtles and not feel revulsion and regret. Yet beyond the urgent need to plug the gushing well, protect the coastline and fisheries, and restore the Gulf Coast environment as rapidly as possible, we cannot allow our entirely appropriate emotional response to this tragedy to overwhelm our judgment. As bad as this spill is, our long-term challenges of energy security and climate change remain worse. We would only compound the damage if we allowed our reaction to this spill and its ripples beyond oil to further confuse our energy policies.

In his column in yesterday's Washington Post, Robert Samuelson sharply criticized the President's effort to harness the public's frustration and outrage against the spill into support for his energy and climate change agenda. Mr. Samuelson raised some very salient points concerning the difficulties of attempting to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels at the same time we must meet the expanding energy needs of a growing economy and population. However, I think he missed the deeper contradiction that has been created by the "strange bedfellows" coalitions that have formed since the middle of the last decade, marrying concerns about climate change to the urgent necessity of improving our energy security. As long as the shared enemy was foreign oil--from "countries that don't like us"--these groups could emphasize the overlaps in their positions and mostly ignore the resulting inconsistencies. But with the reaction to the spill turning the political tide against domestic oil as well as the imported kind--and perhaps, by extension, against natural gas derived from the hydraulic fracturing of shale reservoirs--the convenient overlap between climate policy and energy security could vanish.

If that sounds counter-intuitive, perhaps it's because so much of what we've been told by our leaders concerning our energy options has ignored the fundamental mismatch of scale between fossil fuels and our rapidly-growing renewable energy sources. Consider that while US ethanol production has grown by an astonishing 660% since 2000--an average of 23% per year--it still equates to just 2.4% of our annual oil consumption. Non-hydropower renewables, including wind power, which has grown by an even more remarkable 34% per year since 2000, made up just 3.6% of US electricity supply last year. These facts are crucial to the debate, not because these energy sources should be regarded as inconsequential, but because at their current and anticipated near-future output renewables provide a form of energy currency that can only be spent once. If we want to expand wind, solar, geothermal and biomass power to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power generation, we cannot spend them again on powering electric vehicles to displace petroleum-based transportation fuels. If we want to leverage biofuels to back out imported oil, we can't spend the same biofuels to take the place of oil we won't be getting from offshore wells we aren't drilling. Someday, biofuels and renewable electricity sources may have grown enough to take on all comers, but that day remains over the horizon. And while nuclear power is already contributing on a much larger scale, its expansion will take many years, particularly if we begin retiring older nuclear power plants like Vermont Yankee in the interim.

Natural gas operates in a similar realm of hard choices, though on a larger scale. It currently accounts for nearly one-fourth of our total energy consumption. Last year, with electricity demand down and gas prices at less than half their level of just a few years ago, natural gas-fired power generation made significant inroads into the market share of coal-fired power. That was good for consumers and good for the environment, but it was only possible as a result of the dramatic resurgence of US gas production from the development of shale gas supplies. Together with coal bed methane and gas from tight sands, these unconventional sources now make up half our domestic natural gas output. Yet as with renewables, if we want to use this additional gas to reduce the 40% of US CO2 emissions coming from the power sector, we can't employ the same gas to displace gasoline in cars or diesel in trucks. And without the contribution of shale gas made possible by "fracking", gas would likely be too expensive to substitute for either oil or coal.

We have a wealth of new and old options for addressing both our greenhouse gas emissions and our reliance on imported oil. However, at this point that bounty of choices does not extend to backing out all oil while still reducing emissions. With biofuels and renewable electricity already fully committed to our established energy priorities, our only large-scale option for foregoing the enormous energy resources embodied in the deepwater oil reservoirs of the Gulf Coast--other than simply ramping up oil imports--would require converting coal into liquid fuels. We have off-the-shelf technology to do this, but unfortunately not yet to contain the large increase in CO2 emissions that would accompany such a strategy. Perhaps before we commit ourselves to anything beyond the shortest suspension of deepwater drilling necessary to ensure that it can proceed safely, we should clarify what our national energy priorities really are. A change in the implicit direction in which we've been heading could have far-reaching and enormously expensive consequences, including for the environment.

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