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Issue No. 51 (January / February 2004) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Second front in our war for democracy:
Liberating the U.S. from oil dependence

As I write this, our Commander-in-Chief is -- if you take him at his word -- trying to bring democracy to Iraq. But the heaviest resistance may not come from the Saddam Fedayeen.

We import over 20% more of our oil now than we did in the 1970s (when President Nixon warned of our dependence on foreign oil) -- 55%, up from 33%. That means we’re more dependent on the good offices of Iraq’s quasi-totalitarian neighbors than we’ve ever been. Saudi Arabia alone has the capacity to make or break world oil prices, a truly unsettling thought.

If we really want to bring democracy to Iraq, and to the rest of the Middle East, then we need to open a second “front.” Besides nurturing proto-democratic regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to liberate ourselves from dependence on oil along with all the ugly realpolitik compromises that follow from it.

Note that I said “oil,” not just “foreign oil” as per Nixon. Economists across the political spectrum have concluded that, because oil is a fungible global commodity, even perfect self-sufficiency in oil can’t protect us from price hikes -- oil prices will remain the same whether we get our oil from the Middle East or East Texas, the Nigerian coast or the Alaskan slope.


Does ending our dependence on oil seem far-fetched? Although there was no great consensus to go to war with Saddam, a consensus is emerging on the “second front,” the war against oil dependence.

Progressive Policy Institute’s Ron Minsk says oil dependence “constrains our foreign policy by diminishing our ability to act freely” -- and Business Week’s John Carey says countries would have “less leverage over us” if we kicked oil dependence.

Jon Slangerup of Stuart Energy Systems, the hydrogen energy company, cites climate change and air pollution concerns -- and Ged Davis of Shell Oil cites health and climate concerns.

Ricardo Bayon of the radical-middle-leaning New America Foundation laments the staggering economic costs of oil dependence (in the January Atlantic Monthly) -- and a paper by David Greene of the U.S. government’s own Oak Ridge National Laboratory puts those costs at approx. $7 trillion (yes, trillion) over the last 30 years.

Even prominent pundits and politicians have begun calling for a second front. Tom Friedman wants a new “Manhattan Project to develop a renewable energy source, along with greater conservation” (New York Times, 6 Oct. 2002), and Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) has begun pushing for a “New Apollo Project” to ease our reliance on oil.

Stumbling block

With so many and such varied voices getting it right, why isn’t the new Manhattan or Apollo project -- the second front -- at the top of the national agenda, side by side with the war in Iraq?

It isn’t “capitalism.” I’ve attended two of the biggest renewable-energy events of this young century -- the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) conference in Washington, D.C. in 2001, and the National Hydrogen Association (NHA) conference here last March 4-6 -- and at both events some of the most informed and enthusiastic promoters of post-petroleum technologies have been the big oil companies and other large corporations. They see the writing on the wall better than most.

I’m afraid one of the biggest stumbling blocks may be the passionate intensity of some alternative energy advocates. Their exaggerated claims, their rivalries, and their hidden political agendas have cast a confusing and ultimately disreputable pall over the whole topic of alternative energy sources. Journalists and energy professionals at both conferences were painfully aware of this.

We laugh (and wince) when Vice President Cheney calls for more oil drilling. But prominent alternative energy spokespeople like Lester Brown, Amory Lovins, Jeremy Rifkin, and Peter Schwartz are also heavily invested -- professionally and often financially -- in their own preferred solutions to the energy crisis. To find truly objective and holistic voices in the energy milieu is a challenge.

And we’ve had fifty years of overpromises now. In the 1950s, nuclear power was going to provide energy “too cheap to meter.” (Are you old enough to remember that ubiquitous phrase?) In the 1960s and 70s, values change was going to render technological change irrelevant (a point of view I happily promoted with my widely cited article “Voluntary Simplicity,” New Age Journal, Sept. 1978).

Then solar energy and wind power became the new sources of salvation, another angelic vision that led inexorably to ten years of government rip-offs and busted dreams -- hilariously recounted in a book that, to its credit, AWEA had on sale at its conference, Peter Asmus’s Reaping the Wind (2001).

Now hydrogen power is the great post-petroleum hope, and the star-making machinery is once again out in full force. The cover of the April 2003 Wired Magazine blares, “How Hydrogen Power Can Save America,” and if that’s a little bland for you, the cover of this month’s E Magazine suggests hydrogen fuel can “Deliver Us from Oil, War and Terrorism.”

After 50 years of overblown promises, is it any wonder Dick Cheney is the only one smiling?

The new realism

Beneath the hype, many policy analysts and energy professionals -- including, hearteningly, many professionals I met at the AWEA and NHA conferences -- have begun to rethink their natural competitive tendency to promote their energy path at the expense of all other energy paths.

According to this new realism, we no longer have hard vs. soft energy paths (Amory Lovins’s formulation c. 1976), lifestyle change vs. technological change, renewables vs. nuclear.

Instead, we have one emerging, unified camp committed to promoting whatever combination of energy sources, technological changes, and value changes can render us least dependent on oil, with due consideration as to safety and price.

Above all, that means all the players in the post-oil energy fight must commit themselves to (a) listening to one another and learning from one other.

And that presupposes (b) supporting all reasonable research, development, and demonstration projects by every non-oil player, solar to nuclear, hydrogen to natural gas.

Some thinkers have given a name to this approach: “diverse energy paths.” I prefer the term “parallel energy paths” because it emphasizes the different energy paths’ coexistence over time, with some being preferable today, others tomorrow, and so on back and forth ad infinitum.

"Parallel energy paths"

As soon as you start looking for advocates of “parallel energy paths,” you’ll start spotting them. Like radical middle thinkers in general, they’re everywhere now.

Take Joel Darmstadter, senior fellow at the universally respected think tank Resources for the Future. Government support “would be misguided if it tried to target energy market outcomes that favor one or another energy source,” he says.

Or take Ged Davis, vice president at Shell International. “It is very difficult to pick winners [among energy paths],” he told a conference of oil executives in London in 2001. “Early last century the internal combustion engine looked an unlikely choice until Henry Ford transformed its manufacturing dynamics.”

The government doesn’t view hydrogen as the only legitimate future energy source, the courageous Steve Chalk (head of the Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Program at the Department of Energy) told a standing-room-only audience at the NHA conference. Diversification is what we’re after. And that means developing nuclear, that means developing biomass. . . . We need many alternatives to oil that are affordable and widely available. . . .

Later at the NHA conference, Dan Reicher -- an executive at Northern Power Systems -- hammered home the point that hydrogen can be derived from fossil OR nuclear OR renewable energy sources.

And Hank Habicht, a commissioner at the recently launched National Commission on Energy Policy, preached a gospel of “hydrogen-and”: hydrogen and renewables, hydrogen and energy efficiency, hydrogen and -- even -- carbon-free coal technology.

These experts are downright hostile to the my-way-or-the-highway attitude of many traditional and alternative energy advocates. And there’s plenty of evidence that the American public might, on reflection, agree with the experts’ multi-pronged approach.

In a recent poll by the Mellman Group for the Sierra Club, 37% of us said alternative energy would best solve energy problems in the U.S. today -- and 34% said energy efficiency. Meanwhile, in a poll by Bisconti Research for the Nuclear Energy Institute, 65% of adults claimed to be in favor of nuclear energy “as one of the ways to provide electricity in the U.S.” Among college graduates registered to vote, support for nuclear as one element in the mix actually rises, to 73%.

The best evidence that the parallel-energy-paths approach is catching on, though, may be this: Advocates of single energy paths are beginning to speak with a new modesty about their old claims.

Recently we’ve seen long-time nuclear power advocate Richard Rhodes concede that nuclear was “probably commercialized prematurely” (New York Times, 7 May 2001). At the AWEA conference, AWEA Director Randy Swisher conceded that the wind energy industry had recently spent “a decade or more in the doldrums,” and at the NHA conference the legislative assistant for the Solar Energy Industries Association flat-out stated that “solar was not ready for prime time in 1975.”

Not that you’d have known any of this from their press releases at the time, or from most media outlets.

Six paths over America

Parallel energy paths means that the government will commit itself to providing a substantial amount of support to each of six very different energy paths -- and that our society will make use of each whenever and to the extent that each promises to meet some of our energy needs cheaply and safely.

The six paths are: conservation, renewables, fossil fuels, hydrogen, nuclear, and values-change.

Each path is teeming with (largely underappreciated) experts and advocates who’ve worked out the very best ways to proceed down it.

Now is the time to listen to them . . . to all of them, together.

The conservation path

Few conservationists still claim that conservation (now often called “energy efficiency”) can eliminate most of our energy needs.

However, the best of them -- such as Howard Geller, until recently director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) -- are convinced that adopting a “comprehensive set of policies for advancing energy efficiency” could lower national energy use by up to 18% over the next 10 years (testimony before the Energy Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, May 3, 2001).

There’s no great mystery about what those policies should be. First, a whole bunch of carrots, i.e. tax incentives for producers and consumers. For example, a joint task force of ACEEE and the Alliance to Save Energy (ASE) recently recommended tax credits of up to $2,000 for builders of “highly efficient” new homes.

Along with carrots, conservationists want sticks -- especially new or strengthened efficiency standards on products like household appliances and residential central air conditioners. Sticks are needed, Dr. Geller told Congress, because of “lack of awareness” or “rush purchases” on the part of consumers, and because market pressures often force builders and landlords to think short-term rather than long-term.

All conservationists want car and truck miles per gallon (mpg) to be raised pronto. “The numbers here dwarf everything else, accounting for a full two-thirds of the . . . oil the U.S. uses each day,” says John Carey, an editor at Business Week. The joint ASE-ACEEE task force recommends increasing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards 5% a year so they’d reach 38 mpg in 10 years. Carey wants to raise that figure higher (to 40 mpg) and faster. “[T]he technology already exists to get there,” he says pointedly.

Conservationists would convert our entire outdated electricity grid into a smart and digitally controlled network. According to Kurt Yeager of the Electric Power Research Institute, that alone could eventually save us billions of dollars a year.

Finally, many conservationists would phase in a fuel tax. “What Americans need to know is that the cost of gasoline is much more than $1.50 a gallon,” Gal Luft of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security told Business Week. If you factor the pollution and public health costs of gasoline into the final price, it should rise enough to tempt us to change bad habits.

The renewables path

Renewable energy advocates have an agenda that’s just as ambitious and urgent.

Their own preferred carrot is a “production tax credit” (PTC) for solar or wind or biomass generated electricity. The currently puny -- but actually existing! -- wind energy PTC provides a tax credit of 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour to producers of electricity from wind energy; Randy Swisher, director of AWEA, touted it to the skies in his plenary speech at the AWEA conference.

But there are plenty of other tasty carrots to choose from. For example, Gov. Mike Rounds (R-SD) recently discussed reducing or eliminating some taxes for renewable energy companies. And Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-IA) recently proposed creating a public fund for “partnering with private investment” in the development of renewable energy.

Renewable energy activists’ favorite stick is what’s called the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS). In a recent online public chat, Worldwatch Institute energy specialist Janet Sawin succinctly described the RPS as a “mandate that a certain amount of [energy] capacity or generation must come from renewables -- thereby creating a market for these technologies.”

About a third of the states have RPS laws now (New York’s is one of the most ambitious, requiring utilities to provide 25% of electricity from renewable sources by the year 2012), and a push is on to create a national RPS.

Tom Starrs, an energy activist from Washington State, gave one of the most riveting speeches at the AWEA conference -- a plea for “net metering.” With net metering, anyone having a small home-based solar or wind energy power system can deliver their excess energy to their power company and be credited for it against any electricity the utility supplied to them. In other words, the intermittent nature of solar or wind energy stops being a deterrent -- and gets turned into a plus! It’s already happening in some states.

Finally, all renewable energy advocates want government to use a lot more renewable energy. “The federal government’s total energy bill [is] $8 billion,” AWEA notes in a policy paper. “Federal energy dollars could have a great impact on renewable energy markets.”

The fossil fuels path

Even the fossil fuels path -- Mr. Lovins’s notorious “hard” path -- has a role to play in our energy future.

For one thing, we can’t just go cold turkey on oil. As Business Week explains (Feb. 24), an abrupt drop in world oil demand would cause prices to plummet. And that would not only disproportionately punish higher-cost producers such as Russia and the U.S., it would further concentrate market power in the hands of Middle Eastern nations, the lowest-cost producers.

So even if we don’t open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, it behooves us to continue developing (and using) the awesome and increasingly environmentally sensitive new oil-drilling technologies described in the Bush-Cheney energy report, “National Energy Policy” (May 2001) -- 3-D seismic technology that enables geologists to use computers to determine the location of oil and gas before drilling begins. . . ; “slimhole” drilling . . . ; highly sophisticated directional drilling that enables wells to be drilled long horizontal distances from the drilling site. . . .

We might also want to do what Brookings energy policy expert Pietro Nivola advises: “enhance trade relations with the stable suppliers” of oil, especially Canada and Mexico (Brookings Review, Spring 2002). Of course, many NAFTA-haters are opposed to this obvious and mutually beneficial step.

Even after we end our dependence on oil (and simply sell to other nations most of the oil we produce), other fossil fuels might continue to be used under the parallel paths scenario.

Natural gas would almost certainly be more than the “transition fuel” envisioned by renewable-energy advocates such as Lester Brown. “The technology of choice for power generation in the foreseeable future is the highly efficient combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT),” says Joel Darmstadter of Resources for the Future, “an advanced version of which may well be able, within the next decade or two, to produce power below today’s nationwide average generation cost. . . . The CCGT may constitute a formidable challenge to windpower and other renewables. . . .”

In addition, some industry analysts are convinced “clean coal” can be more than an oxymoron.

“[We are] developing advanced technologies that will allow coal to serve as a valuable -- and ultimately a virtually emissions-free -- contributor to our energy mix for decades to come,” Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told a gathering of the Department of Energy’s employees Feb. 3. “In particular we are increasing our concentration on carbon sequestration, the capture and permanent storage of carbon dioxide produced by coal.”

Even the most stalwart advocate of soft energy paths should hope DOE’s clean coal initiative succeeds: many bioregions are wedded to coal mining or coal-burning power plants.

The hydrogen path

All hydrogen power advocates aren’t wild-eyed World Saviors. The NHA conference was dominated by parallel-pathers who see hydrogen as one (important) element in the nation’s future energy mix. Many hydrogen professionals are building an exciting radical-middle agenda.

First and foremost is getting the R&D right. Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, wants the government to provide funding to develop “safe . . . storage” of hydrogen in automobile fuel tanks.

In a brilliant paper for the Progressive Policy Institute, Peter Hoffmann (author of Tomorrow’s Energy, MIT Press, 2001) and Robert Rose, director of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute, hone in on three other R&D issues: determining the best way to “make and supply” hydrogen, developing a fuel tank that can power a car a lot more than 200 miles before refueling (conventional cars can go twice that far on a tank of gasoline), and researching ways to lower the cost of fuel cells.

Like renewable path advocates, hydrogen advocates put great stock in purchases by the federal government. Presiding over the hydrogen car exhibit at the NHA conference was David Wagner, a project leader at Ford’s Scientific Research Lab, and when I asked him how the government could best help develop hydrogen powered vehicles he immediately said, Buy hydrogen-powered vehicles! It’ll bring the costs way down.

Others want government to provide tax credits and subsidies. Mr. Hoffmann and Mr. Rose suggest up to $4,000 in tax credits to consumers for fuel cell vehicle purchases, along with a very substantial tax credit to fuel cell manufacturers.

Many speakers at the NHA conference stressed the need to invest in “fuel infrastructure” for H-powered vehicles. Joachim Wolf, from the strategic development department of Linde AG (Germany), was especially passionate on the need for government to help establish various kinds of consumer-friendly hydrogen filling stations, some as part of existing gas stations and others as self-standing knockoffs. Few consumers will buy H cars and other H-powered vehicles that can’t be easily serviced, Mr. Wolf told his thoroughly attentive audience.

The nuclear path

If you want to separate “alternative” energy pathers from parallel pathers, all you have to do is observe their different takes on nuclear energy. The former are almost religiously opposed; the latter are agnostic, more interested in assessing new scientific and technological developments than refighting ancient battles.

There can be no question that nuclear is one of the cleanest sources of energy; nuclear reactors produce no air pollution or greenhouse gases. Nuclear’s dangers are well-known. What’s less well-known is that nuclear safety and efficiency have improved markedly over the last decade.

According to Richard Rhodes, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), workers’ exposure to radiation -- and waste produced per unit of nuclear energy -- have both hit new lows, and production costs are now 1.9 cents per kilowatt-hour, as compared to 3.4 cents for electricity produced from gas (Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 2000).

Just as important, a new generation of nuclear scientists and engineers is dedicated to coming up with real solutions to the risks associated with nuclear power. Already, according to Mr. Rhodes, a South African utility has announced plans to produce a “pebble-bed” reactor that physically cannot melt down.

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy (July 18, 2001), Dr. James Lake, past president of the American Nuclear Society, laid out with admirable candor the problem areas that matter most (capital cost of new nuclear power plants, construction time, fear of meltdown/plutonium theft/terrorist attack, and waste management and storage). He also laid out a sensible R&D strategy for attacking those problems.

An even more ambitious R&D strategy known as “Generation IV” -- which may take 30 years to fully carry out -- is being promoted by the Generation IV International Forum. Gen-IV’s maximalist goals include creating nuclear energy systems that “safely manage” their nuclear waste (no ifs, ands, or buts) and have a “clear life-cycle cost advantage” over other energy sources.

No one can say for sure whether the many principled scientists now involved in nuclear R&D can fully achieve their goals. But no one can say for sure whether the scientists involved in hydrogen or solar R&D can fully achieve their goals; and a true parallel-pather would seamlessly root for all of them.

The values-change path

The glamour these days is in the fight over which energy source should replace oil. But it’s as true today as it was in the Sixties: Even a small change in Americans’ materialistic values would cause energy demand to plummet.

The last generation of values-change texts (like my 1978 article on voluntary simplicity, above) was aimed largely at radicals or potential radicals. But a new generation of values-change books is arising, and it’s aimed at solid members of the upper middle class.

For example, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich’s wonderful book The Future of Success (2000) tries to convince readers that “We can, if we wish, reassess our standard measure of success.” And former Reagan domestic policy analyst Dinesh D’Souza’s The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence (2000) prods readers to make “meaning and happiness” central to their lives.

Another part of this mainstream-focused push to promote values-change is the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign, led by the National Council of Churches and its Jewish and evangelical allies. Besides the provocative television ads, there’s a wonderful open letter to U.S. automobile companies that begins, “We write to inform you of a gathering movement in the American religious community to establish increased fuel vehicle economy as a moral imperative. . . . We are deeply distressed that our reliance on oil, so central to the operation of the automobile, is warming the planet. . . .”

Probably most values-change advocates want the U.S. government, itself, to play a leading role. Many ideas have been offered.

A National Commission could be set up to air the ideas being discussed by authors like Dr. Reich and Mr. D’Souza. President Clinton’s Initiative on Race -- which sponsored town meetings across the country in an attempt to engage Americans in a so-called “great and unprecedented conversation” about race -- is one possible model.

The Presidency could be used as a bully pulpit -- even by our current president, who quietly uses solar power on his ranch in Texas and is strikingly unpretentious for a Washington figure (Stephanie Mencimer of the Washington Monthly says he likes nothing better than taking foreign dignitaries around the ranch to show them the native wildlife).

Tax deductions could be offered to trumpet moral support -- and offer material relief! -- to those choosing simpler lifestyles. For example, a “Living Lightly” deduction of $1,000 could be offered to anyone with a college degree earning under $24,001 a year. Other $1,000 deductions could go to heads of auto-free households and heads of households with under three kids.

Iraq-like budget

It cost us approx. $100 billion to carry out the original Apollo Program and send a person to the moon. It will cost us $100-200 billion (depending on whom you believe) to carry out our mission in Iraq over the next 10 years. So to launch that “second front” and eventually free ourselves from dependence on oil, a price tag of $100-200 billion over the next 10 years is appropriate to the enormity of the task.

Enthusiasts of The One Best Energy Path would give a disproportionate amount of that money to their dog in the fight. For example, Peter Schwartz -- author of the hydrogen-or-bust article in the April 2003 Wired Magazine -- would spend $100 billion over the next 10 years on hydrogen alone. By contrast, parallel-energy-path advocates might spend up to $200 billion over the next 10 years, but spread it relatively evenly among all six energy paths.

Thus each year for the next 10 years, each energy path might receive $3.34 billion in grants, tax benefits, and other subsidies. (Politicians would surely take from one path and give to the other, hopefully for defensible reasons. But it’s important to establish that, as a baseline rule, each path should be receiving the same amount each year.) Every path but fossil fuels would receive an immense -- and, hopefully, galvanizing -- financial boost.

Is this affordable? It’s a lot more affordable than it sounds, as you’ll see below. In the long run, spending “what it takes” should even save us money.

Eventually we'd save money

The Department of Energy’s “energy budget” for FY 2002 called for spending $1.302 billion on “energy efficiency and renewable energy,” $861 million on “fossil energy,” and $277 million on “nuclear energy, science, and technology.” However, those figures are extremely misleading, Enronesque.

They not only fail to take account of what other parts of the government are spending to prop up the oil economy. They completely ignore the reality that much energy spending comes in the form of what economists call externalities -- unaccounted-for costs that society has to pay when, e.g., fossil fuels pollute the air and streams.

In a book that’s been making its way around the think tanks here, Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent’s Perverse Subsidies (2001), the authors estimate that in real life, fossil fuels and nuclear energy receive hidden or inefficient subsidies totalling $300 billion a year worldwide.

So even though a 10 year, $100-200 billion dollar energy budget sounds humongous, it’s really quite reasonable in the larger scheme of things. And when you look at the savings that might accrue, it begins to look like a smart investment.

For example, Business Week’s John Carey estimates that by spending $120-200 billion over 10 years, the U.S. could become 50% more energy efficient (24 Feb. 2003).

Two years ago, the World Wildlife Fund released a report (“The American Way to Kyoto”) arguing that the U.S. could save money within 10 years by sincerely implementing every aspect of the Kyoto Protocol: “When costs and savings of all policies [we suggest here] are combined, they yield cumulative net savings of $105 billion in 2010, and $576 billion in 2020.”

And an about-to-be released study by the Tellus Institute and the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions (“The Path to Carbon-Dioxide-Free Power”) concludes that if a broad portfolio of post-petroleum policies and measures were adopted, the net savings would be more than $80 billion a year by 2020.

Moral of this story

For 30 years we’ve had fun watching colorful exponents of each of the energy paths toot their own horns while the U.S. became ever more dependent on oil.

With the Middle East imploding as I write, with the need to free ourselves from oil dependence greater than ever, it’s time for advocates from all six energy paths to accept -- eagerly, even joyously -- what each path could conceivably add to the whole. And then to move forward, together.


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