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The Future of Energy

This Billy Joel song from the 1970's speculates about what may be going on in the United States in 2017.

I do not envy President Obama or anyone else who has ever held or will someday hold his job. As presidents go, he has been particularly unlucky, inheriting one hell of a mess. He has been in continual crisis mode from the day of his election, with multiple problems forcing him to do some serious multitasking: health care, recession, budget deficit, financial reform, two wars, financial reform, immigration, climate change, oil spill, and the list goes on. Confronting one problem – health care - can make another problem – budget deficit - worse, and any policies he supports are bound to anger interest groups or political factions who feel that these actions might harm them. The complexity of the problems and his limited control over legislation will cause him, like all presidents, to be judged by circumstances largely beyond his control. If the economy picks up significantly by 2012, he might get reelected. If it does not, then he is probably toast. Presidents, like all politicians, are judged by short-term results.

But if President Obama asked me (for some reason) to pick the most important issue of our time, I would answer with one word: energy. Our industrial and technological society, with its mechanized and increasingly computerized systems of production, communication, and transportation, relies completely on a steady supply of affordable energy. If the energy distribution system breaks down, we are all screwed. And if you look at my list of problems in the first paragraph, the question of whether or not we are able to keep producing and distributing affordable energy is relevant to just about every issue. So the choices that are made in this area, in my mind, are the key to humanity’s future.

A few days ago, I was listening to a podcast of the June 30 episode of “Fresh Air” on NPR. The guess was Michael Klare, a correspondent with “The Nation,” who has written extensively on the economics and politics of oil production. ( Here's a link) His basic argument was that the age of “easy oil” has ended, and we are now in the age of “tough oil.” If we are to continue with an economic system reliant on petroleum production, then a country like the United States has two options. First, we can turn to locations that still have oil that is relatively easy to access. The problem is that the known locations of “easy oil” are in places ruled by governments that the United States has considered, to say the least, “undesirable”: Venezuela, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, etc. This has caused the U.S. to either tolerate lousy governments (Nigeria, Saudi Arabia) or take actions to either undermine or topple them (Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, etc.). Many would argue, of course, that neither course of action has been particularly desirable.

A second course of action is politically more desirable in some ways but poses another significant problem. Large amounts of oil exist deep under the ocean, in the Arctic, or in rock known as shale. Some of this exists in the United States, in America-friendly places like Canada, or in ocean waters that are nearby or open. The problem is that the process of extracting this oil can be extremely expensive and/or dangerous due to geologic and/or geographic difficulties and hazards. The BP oil spill, of course, is the most publicized recent example of what can happen when operating in a difficult environment.

Now some would argue that as oil extraction technology improves, the costs and dangers of getting to this “tough oil” will gradually decrease. Who knows; they may be proven right. But others, including Michael Klare, would argue that it is time to begin a major push toward energy alternatives. In his mind, the dangers and potential environmental damage of getting to the tough oil are too high, and if the climate change people are right, then we need to start reducing our dependence on fossil fuels as soon as possible. But on what energy alternative(s) should we focus our investment: solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, lithium batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, or all of the above? At the moment, the available “alternative” energy technologies are not going to meet our present demands. In addition, energy companies have invested massive amounts of money into the current infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction and distribution. The decision to shift significantly toward investment in other alternatives would make all of that previous investment seem like a waste. So instead, they assure us that technological advances will help them to keep producing plenty of fossil fuels, and the threat of climate change, of course, is either fabricated or exaggerated.

Everyone can agree on one thing. Science and technology got us into this situation, but they are also the only hope for the future prosperity of our species. The only question is whether we will come up with improved methods for maintaining the status quo or innovative new technologies that are cost efficient, sustainable over the long run, and hopefully, a whole lot cleaner. When in doubt, the natural human tendency is to maintain the status quo. The present setup, with all of its problems, is often less scary than an uncertain future. For the moment, fossil fuels still seem to be the cheapest way to go. A radical shift toward a new energy future would probably involve major sacrifices in terms of economic growth and standard of living over the short-term. But if environmentalists and some economists are right, then we have already reached a point where the long-term costs of the status quo outweigh its benefits. Unfortunately, since politicians tend to think about the next election, and voters tend to want what is best for them right now, short-term benefits seem more important than “theoretical” long-term consequences. Just ask President Obama or anyone else who has ever done his job.

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