Energy Independence

Posted: July 5, 2008 in america, energy independence, freedom, power

These days everyone seems to be talking about “energy independence”. The ever-rising price of oil is dragging the costs of everything upward with it, as anyone who’s been to the grocery store lately knows. I predict as well that the costs of toys, computers and nearly everything else made from petroleum plastics will begin rising as well, sooner rather than later. So the cost of oil affects nearly every aspect of daily life. And keeping your personal cost of living down is not a simple matter of driving less or turning the thermostat down a couple of notches. It takes, on average, over 900 gallons of petroleum to feed each and every American, every year. That includes the oil used in farm implements, fertilizers and transportation of food to market. When you factor in the amount of oil and petroleum the average family uses each year – about 1,500 gallons – you begin to understand the scope of our problem.

So we need, as a nation, to come up with a comprehensive solution to the problem, and fast. As I stated in an earlier post, we’ve had 30 years to do something about this. Experts (geologists, not Republican propagandists) have been predicting this for nearly 80 years. The scientific data are clear – we will run out of exploitable oil. The signs are already there. Production reached a peak in 2004-2005 and has been dropping since. It’s not happening because of “profiteering” or “greed”, either. It’s happening because of one simple, incontrovertible fact – that to pump oil from a well, you need pressure within that well. The more you pump, the lower the pressure becomes. Eventually the well reaches a point of no return, where it becomes economically unfeasible and physically impossible to extract any more oil from the hole. You can use other substances to re-create that back pressure (water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen are common methods) but It turns out that even with advanced drilling and pumping techniques, only about half of the total oil in any given well can be extracted (Deffeys, 2005). The rest will remain underground, tantalizingly out of reach.

Two years ago in his state of the union address, President Bush said that America is “addicted to oil”. It’s not just America – the entire world economy revolves around the black stuff. Today there is no developed or developing country on Earth that does not either import or export it. We are all dependent on oil.

Our response to this current crisis has been mixed. For almost his entire presidency, Bush has been pushing to open up the Alaskan Northern Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration and drilling. Environmentalists have been just as consistently and fanatically opposed to it. It’s become such a hot topic it’s hard to have a rational discussion about it. Those on the exploration side of the fence seem to think opening up ANWR will be the Holy Grail that will save us from dependence on foreign oil; conservationists think pipelines and oil wells in Alaska will destroy a pristine and beautiful landscape. The reality is, even if we’d started drilling ANWR six years ago, the price of oil would still be where it is today. Production would just now be getting started at full capacity, and third world demand for oil would still be driving the prices upward. Exploiting yet another undeveloped landscape in our desperate search for our favorite drug will not save us from the inevitable crash; it will only delay it.

The same goes for offshore drilling. Even if we could “wave a magic wand” as the President likes to say, and conjure up hundreds of offshore rigs and refineries today, it would not save us from our dependence on oil imports. Our demand for oil is simply too great. Oil prices might dip slightly, but would basically stabilize over the longer term. The end result would be the same as ANWR drilling – delaying the inevitable.

So, to return to the original thesis, how are we going to achieve energy independence, and is such a thing even possible? I believe it is not only possible, it is necessary to our survival as a civilization. The fact is, oil as an energy source is on the down slope. It had a good run during its 150 year history, but it’s time to move on. But to what? Is there a “magic bullet” that will free us from dependence on foreign sources of energy?

And what is “energy independence”, anyway? The trouble with the term as employed by politicians and businessmen is that it can mean very different things to different people. McCain and Bush talk about it in terms of America being free from dependence on foreign oil. All well and good, but the scope of the problem is far greater than that. Besides, when most Americans hear “foreign oil” they almost reflexively think of Saudi Arabia. In fact, as shown on this chart from the Energy Information Agency the vast majority of our imported oil comes from non-Arab countries. We import nearly 2 million barrels per day from Canada. So getting “free from foreign oil” is not just a matter of opening up more wells here. The world economy depends on our oil imports.

Besides, drilling at home won’t create true energy independence, at least not for the average consumer. Switching from one drug dealer to another closer to home doesn’t solve your problem.

Nuclear power won’t solve it either. Politicians love to tout nuclear as “clean” energy, but nothing could be further from the truth. If you only consider the actual production phase, then yes, it is nearly emission-free. But before the uranium gets to the plant, it must be mined, refined, and processed, and each phase produces environmental damage of its own. And then there’s the inevitable and so far unanswered question of what to do with the waste. The end result of nuclear energy is so dangerously radioactive that effective long-term solutions have so far proved unobtainable. Besides, once again we’d just be trading one giant energy syndicate for another. Energy independence? I think not.

Senator McCain mentioned “clean coal” in a recent speech regarding his energy plan. “Clean coal” is one of those industry oxymorons that refers to coal that has been chemically cleansed of impurities, burned, and the gases treated with steam and reclaimed so as to reduce or hopefully eliminate carbon emissions. Don’t be fooled – there is nothing “clean” about coal. Mining it is a filty, dangerous proces that always produces toxic byproducts, and there is no way to burn it cleanly. It would be more accurate to call it “cleaner coal” or even “slightly less dirty coal” but then it wouldn’t be so easy to sell to the public. Coal in any form is a dead-end technology. There’s a reason we stopped using it at the end of the industrial revolution.

Ethanol isn’t any better than oil.  It takes about 30% more energy to produce a liter of ethanol than you get from using the resultant liter.  That means higher oil demands and increased greenhouse gases not less.  And then there’s the ethically questionable practice of transforming farmland into fuel production.  Food prices are already high enough and trending upward; ethanol production will only drive them higher.

True energy independence requires radical change in both thought and method. This must be both evolutionary and revolutionary in nature. The way we produce and use power must change simultaneously with the way we think about energy. This goes beyond any discussion of “green collar jobs” or “renewable energy”, though both will be essential to our future. To me, energy independence means each family, community, or city has the ability to produce its own energy, as dictated by its individual needs. The answer will not be found in the sort of large-scale national-level projects of the sort we’ve become accustomed to, but in a new emphasis on small-scale power production. I believe wind turbines, solar power, fuel cells and other emergent technologies will be critical to this effort.

Instead of offering tax incentives to corporations for developing green technologies, the government should be in the business of offering tax breaks to individuals and communities that choose to use them. I was always shocked at the relative lack of solar power use in the Southwest, where such a thing should be an obvious choice. Perhaps all people need is an incentive to do it, and less propaganda. In more rural settings where communities have more land available, and especially in farm country, similar incentives could be offered to encourage the use of wind turbines for power production. This would be true “power to the people” – allowing individuals and communities to choose where they get their electricity and by what means. Some states already offer rebates to homeowners and investors that choose to go solar. We need to expand this and make it nationwide.

What I’m proposing here is nothing more and nothing less than an energy revolution. In any true revolution, power is taken from one group with a history of abusing it (in this case, the oil industry) and redistributing or decentralizing it to a new power base (in this case, the American people). We will probably still need large-scale projects to power large-scale communities, at least for the shorter term. But if we can make the radical shift away from everyone relying on the same enormous power grid and enable true energy independence – i.e., independence from the energy cartels and monopolies that currently rule our lives – then we, the people, will all be much better off in the end.

Eventually – within the next 20 to 50 years – we will run out of exploitable oil. The ball has already started rolling. We’re already behind the power curve; as I stated before, we’ve had 30 years to work on solving the problem, and done nothing in that time but continue to waste oil at ever-increasing rates. We now have half the time left in order to solve twice the problem. If we’re going to remain the world’s main superpower and regain our economic strength, we’d better get started now.

Sources:

Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak by Kenneth Deffeyes
Peak Oil: Life After the Oil Crash
Energy Information Administration
Wikipedia: Clean Coal Technology
Sunpowercorp

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Comments
  1. Kelly Knight says:

    You failed to mention two extremely viable and proven sources of oil: oil shale, of which we have 1.5 trillion barrels of processable oil which will last 240 years at today’s consumption levels, and 250 years worth of coal that can be converted to liquid fuel.

    On the first, the oil shale mining program took off in the 80’s only to be dismantled by cost and fascist environmentalists. The claim was made that if oil got to $60 a barrel, oil shale would become viable. Well, we are well past this point.

    On the second, the Germans developed the technology in the 40’s and the South Africans perfected it and have been using coal to liquid fuel for more that 50 years.

    So, you can see that we have nearly 500 years of oil supplies, not the 20-30 you stated. We simply need to put Americans to work getting it out of the ground and refined.

    “Drill and Mine US Oil–Buy and Refine US Oil!” (copyright 2008, kelly and dorthey knight, http://imaknoyd.wordpress.com)

  2. Afrit007 says:

    Both are viable energy sources, but development must be done in a responsible, clean way. The problem with oil shale is that it is extremely resource intensive, particularly when it comes to the use of fresh water. In situ extraction is less so, but still problematic.

    Liquefied coal is a good idea, once again if it can be done cleanly. I hope the predictions are wrong, but I’m not optimistic. Business does not exactly have a good track record of self-regulation when it comes to keeping development programs clean, and government has an equally poor track record of taking crucial action when it’s necessary.

  3. Alan Kohn says:

    At the beginning of 1986, Congress and President Reagan abolished the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corporation, thus insuring our present predicament. Recently, Al Gore and the Green Fanatics have insisted that we can stop global warming/adverse climate change by reducing our output of greenhouse gases (GHG). Scientists admit that the accumulation of GHG already in our atmosphere will take many hundreds of years to reduce significantly no matter how much we cut down on our GHG emissions. The solution is to develop and utilize geoengineering solar-shade technologies to reduce incoming sun light/heat energy by less than two percent, thereby stopping and even reversing adverse climate change in little more than one year. This would buy us the time to go green gradually and give us the ability to use our enormous coal, oil shale and natural gas reserves to provide all of the energy we need in the very near future. The entire Midwest, from Texas to North Dakota and Montana, provides a corridor for wind-turbines which can provide clean electrical power as soon as we put these turbines in place. Our manufacturing labor costs have dropped and we are ready to manufacture everything that we have been importing as soon as we start producing energy by the means listed above. All we need is the truth, vision, initiative and intelligent utilization of the resources we already have.

  4. Alan Kohn says:

    Please remove my Email address from the above published on-site listing which follows my entry above as the beginning of a new post which I did not submit. Also, is this site still active? Will anyone read my post? I hope so, because we are on the wrong track to achieve energy independence and to stop global warming/adverse climate change. Al Gore and the Green Hysterics have identified the problem correctly, but are asking to stop GHG emissions. This will not reduce global warming for many hundreds of years – too little and too late. Solar-shield geoengineering technologies are our only hope. GHG reductions are, to quote Nobel-Prize winning Dr. Paul Crutzen, “a pious dream.”

  5. Alan Kohn says:

    Please get my Email address off of this public listing.

  6. Afrit007 says:

    Alan: Done. Your email link has been removed from your posts. Thanks for your comments.

  7. Afrit007 says:

    I think any “quick fix” solution like a solar shield will not, as you say, “buy us time”, but instead will cause more problems than it solves. First, it would lull us in to a false sense that we have more time to solve the problem than we do. Humans in general, and Americans in particular, are pretty lazy. We’d rather have the quick fix than the hard solution, and if the next generation has to pay the price, so be it. It’s the attitude that got us where we are now. Second, the fact is we don’t fully understand what effects geoengineering on a grand scale will have. There is a real possibility of causing more harm than good in a desperate search for a fast solution.

    There are no easy solutions to this problem; that was the original intent of my post. True energy independence will require revolutionary and evolutionary change in the way we think about power – both political power and the kind we need to survive. True energy independence will require a radical de-centralization of the means of power production, and that means removing individual and community reliance on/subservience to the major energy corporations.