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  Geotimes -October 2007 - Political Comment

Energy Independence and Climate Change: Linked but Separate
Josh Trapani

Politicians love “win-win” solutions. A search of congressional Web sites reveals that the phrase shows up more than 2,500 times. Just as scientists seek to explain multiple facts, policymakers seek to balance the needs of multiple interests. Scientists and policymakers may have little in common, but both value parsimony.

Earlier this year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) created a new Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. In the context of “win-win”, the name of the committee is notable, with the conjunction implying both issues may be resolved through the same legislative mechanisms. Although energy independence and global warming are certainly linked, it is also true that, in the words of one Senate committee staff director: “A lot of climate policy is the flip side of energy policy…and vice versa.”

Increasing energy independence means lowering reliance on foreign energy sources. To achieve this, politicians call for increased domestic energy production or actions to reduce demand. Dealing with climate change can include a wide variety of options, but frequently includes a focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Some of the debate around the recent House and Senate energy packages exemplifies the tension between climate change and energy independence. An analysis by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), for example, found that by 2030, the Senate bill, which calls for everything from an increase in biofuels usage to increasing fuel economy standards, would reduce emissions to 13 percent below projected levels. This is still 15 percent above today’s levels, however, and compares poorly with the targets of 60 to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 set by the more aggressive climate change bills currently under consideration.

Specific provisions also exemplify this tension, such as coal-to-liquids technologies, which transform coal into liquid fuels. The Senate rejected an amendment to include a coal-to-liquids fuel standard in its bill. In general, technologies that increase reliance on coal at the expense of petroleum are favorable from an energy independence perspective, due to the size of U.S. coal reserves; it is a mantra on Capitol Hill that domestic coal reserves can meet our energy needs for the next 250 years. However, a June assessment from the National Academies found that those reserves may be sufficient for as few as 100 years, but increased use of coal is still considered helpful to achieving energy independence.

Coal-to-liquids is not a good choice for reducing emissions, however. A recent MIT study found that deriving fuels from coal produces 2.5 to 3.5 times the amount of carbon produced by burning conventional fuels. Even if technologies are put in place to capture and store some of the carbon, life-cycle emissions from coal-to-liquids are still comparable to those produced by conventional sources.

Biofuels have also garnered much recent attention, as they replace fossil fuels with a renewable resource. The Senate energy package calls for production of 36 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2022 (in 2006, production was less than 5 billion gallons). However, biofuels have weaknesses from both energy independence and emissions standpoints.

From the energy independence perspective, the problem is simple. Even if the United States produced 36 billion gallons of ethanol, it would still only be equivalent to about 8 percent of current U.S. oil consumption. And whether this level of production is possible is debatable. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that the maximum realistic amount of U.S. corn ethanol production was less than half this value. Meeting the goal requires development and rapid expansion of cellulosic ethanol production.

From the emissions perspective, the problem is more complex, but no less real. Devoting more land to ethanol production, be it from corn or cellulose, will mean altering land-use patterns and will require growing, fertilizing, harvesting and transporting fuel stocks — all stages that emit greenhouse gases. Moreover, increasing biofuels production also requires increasing infrastructure to transport, store and sell biofuels, as well as increasing the number of vehicles capable of using them.

One of the few options that appears favorable from both energy independence and emissions perspectives is to raise corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, a measure that was passed as part of the Senate energy package. The bill calls for automakers to raise the average mileage of new cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, compared with about 25 miles per gallon today. The ACEEE analysis found that this alone would reduce emissions by 6 percent below projected 2030 levels, resulting from reduced fuel demand and thus likely contributing to energy independence as well. It remains to be seen whether this provision will make it through the House-Senate conference; the House did not include a fuel economy increase in its energy package. Increased energy efficiency and use of renewable power sources like wind and solar are other options that are favorable from both energy independence and global warming perspectives; they also receive some attention in the new energy packages.

Achieving increased energy independence and mitigating climate change impacts are complex but vital issues. Though not the same, they are closely linked, and policy actions that exploit this linkage, such as raising CAFE standards, will aid in helping achieve both goals and creating true “win-win” solutions.

Trapani was the American Geophysical Union’s Congressional Fellow in 2005-2006. He is currently a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow with the USDA Forest Service.

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