Political Scene

Energy and Responsibility: The Buck Stops Here
Katy Makeig

Those of us old enough to remember the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and 1974 remember that the energy crisis then was as real as the gas lines that stretched for blocks. That crisis made an impression on both the government and the American public. The government’s response was swift and harsh, starting with President Nixon’s wage and price controls and evolving into President Carter’s call for conservation, winterizing our homes and tightening our belts.

Fast forward to 2001 and look for evidence of an energy crisis now. Certainly the high prices for home heating oil in the Northeast and the rolling blackouts experienced by Californians are real enough. But what actually constitutes an “energy crisis,” and what is our responsibility in America’s growing demand for energy?

The United States accounts for approximately 3 percent of the world’s energy resources, yet consumes a quarter of them. We continue to import a large percentage of our oil, approximately 56 percent, up from 40 percent in the 1970s. Nuclear power constitutes approximately 8 percent of our energy supply. Yet we are rich in energy fuels — oil, natural gas and coal. So the “energy crisis” is not an economic one, but a philosophical one of supply and demand. Do Americans deserve an unlimited energy supply on demand? If so, what price are we willing to pay?

Our economy can only be strong if we have an abundant, reliable energy supply, but having such a supply requires tradeoffs that few people seem willing to discuss. Whether the reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) would last six months or 60 years isn’t the real argument for opening or continuing to protect these lands. The real question is whether the economic benefits from developing them — the jobs that would be created, the additional revenue realized by a few companies, native peoples and the State of Alaska, and any additional oil — are worth the sacrifice of the only remaining pristine Arctic ecosystem in the world. Once the Arctic Refuge has been changed, there is no going back. Are we really that desperate to drive SUVs? Are there other alternatives?

Those labeled “environmentalists” can’t have it all their way, either. Certainly, many people are unwilling to sacrifice the unspoiled delicacy of the Arctic Refuge in order to fill up their cars more often. But these same people should be willing to take a hard look at the environmental barricades that prevent the system we have from working better.

Take the high heating oil prices Northeast U.S. residents have been paying. These prices were not the result of home heating oil shortages, but rather of the cost of transporting the oil from where it was produced to where it was consumed. There are not enough pipelines to carry oil to the Northeast. This fact is primarily the result of citizens who, because of concerns over safety and property values, have opposed siting pipelines in their neighborhoods. Environmentalists are worried that pipelines would damage the ecosystem if routed through natural habitats. Thus, pipelines weren’t constructed and heating oil had to be trucked or shipped in through eastern seaports. This resulted in higher prices.

Complicating the relatively simple picture of supply and demand are the nuances of conservation and energy efficiency. Most attractive about conservation and efficiency is that many of the benefits of reduced demand can be realized almost immediately, unlike the long-term proposal of increasing production. Improving the efficiency of old coal-fired power plants, as an example, could solve a multitude of problems. The technology currently used dates back to the 1950s, and modernizing this technology could improve efficiency beyond its current 33 percent. More efficient burning would reduce air emissions associated with energy production, reducing the release of greenhouse gases, particulates and pollutants that cause acid rain. This same thinking could be applied to the production of hydroelectricity, often called “incremental hydropower.” Improving the efficiency of the existing network of dams used to produce energy would circumvent the need to build more and bigger dams. Embracing the appliance efficiency standards for air conditioners could obviate the need to build dozens of the new generating stations that the Vice President says are necessary. Properly inflating automobile tires could save as much oil as is projected to lie beneath the Arctic Refuge.

Evar Nering, professor emeritus at Arizona State University, best illustrates the relationship between conservation and increasing demand as a function of exponents. For example, if we have a 100-year reserve of oil and consume it at our current rate, it would last 100 years. Increase annual demand five percent per year, and that same reserve would only last about 36 years. Say we drill for more oil and find a 1,000-year reserve. Dr. Nering calculates that it would last only 79 years if we increase our demand five percent per year. A 10,000-year reserve would last only 125 years with a similar demand. This simple set of calculations clearly illustrates that increasing our supply of fuel through additional exploration and development, while maintaining a steady, though moderate increase in demand, will never supply all of the power we need. The answer is to decrease our demand. Halving the growth of consumption will almost double the life expectancy of the supply, no matter what size.

Conservation is a more difficult issue because it is related to lifestyle. The American economy is not only the largest economy in the world, but it also consumes the most energy per unit of gross domestic product. Our economy constantly needs more energy, projected at an annual increase in demand of 1.8 percent per year. Energy consumption is tied into safety, comfort and health concerns. However, we make choices every day that disregard conservation and waste energy. Studies by the University of Arizona have shown that 16 percent of the energy that individuals use is "interruptible": energy that we can do without for short periods of time without being inconvenienced. But how much energy do we actually use that we don't need at all? We have one of the lowest prices per gallon of gasoline in the world, so it is easy for us to commute with a single person in the car, to make unnecessary trips to the store and to drive vehicles that only get 10 miles per gallon. Conservation is not a matter of "personal virtue," as Vice President Cheney has been quoted saying. It is a matter of personal responsibility.

We need an energy policy to provide the framework for our choices as a nation. At the same time, as individuals we need to take responsibility and make choices that will contribute to the common good. A policy that benefits the entire country is much like the challenges faced by parents raising a teenager. The policy can't give the American people all that they want whenever they want it. It should make us evaluate the short-term and long-term consequences of our choices. It must guide our citizens, lawmakers and industry leaders toward making wise, informed decisions. It should help us set priorities. It should allow us to evaluate whether we are investing judiciously in energy research. An energy policy should make us recognize that we live in a global community where our actions ripple through a society to affect many other inhabitants of the planet. There is a price for our choices. Let us make them wisely.

Makeig is this year's American Geological Institute Congressional Science Fellow. Owner and president of Waste Science Inc., an environmental consulting firm, she is taking a year to work on the staff of Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.).

The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of AGI or of Rep. Holt.

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