04/05/2011 01:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2011

What Won't Happen on Energy, And What Must

Here's what won't happen: An oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Contamination of drinking water from "fracking" for gas. Nuclear meltdown in Japan. Radioactive contamination of food from said meltdown, and any of that contamination reaching the U.S. That's what they told us would never happen. Of course, they were wrong.

Turns out they're wrong about a lot of things. And who's "they"? Why, look!; it's Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Money. You'd think that with matching multi-billion-dollar profits and tax dodges, obese corporations could make a little room for innovation and entrepreneurship. But they're not good at sharing. In anything like a democracy, they're some of the worst citizens one could have. And we have 'em. And the cost of carrying them includes losing U.S. leadership on energy. So why should we listen to them when they say we can't have clean energy? We shouldn't.

Neither should President Obama, who seems to acknowledge political winds by keeping a high-profile lookout for new sources of oil and gas and coal while hiding his clean-energy initiatives. I wish he'd be a bit bolder and more resolute.

We all hail innovation and entrepreneurship, but in practice we subsidize the most profitable and let the real energy entrepreneurs--the ones with new ideas and imagination--scrounge. We feed the sumo wrestlers. Subsidies are by definition market-distorting applications of money. And when we feed Big Energy, we put our own bread on the tables of their lobbyists, to keep things exactly the way they like it. Oh, they complain, constantly; but look at their profits and tell me who's hurting.

So when they say their energy is cheap and other people's products are too expensive, we should read between the lines a little. Here's how I read it: it's true that at present, clean, eternal renewables can't entirely replace fossil fuels right now because we've never let them; and it's not true that fossil fuels are cheap.

Renewables can't replace fossil fuels mainly because the fossil fuel industry prevents it. The more countries invest in scaling up renewable energy technologies for widespread application, the more costs for renewables fall. The more countries invest in fossil fuels, the more costs for fossil fuels rise.

Coal and oil and gas aren't cheap. Coal's costs include destroying mountains and streams, the health problems of miners and the asthma of children, mercury in seafood, climate disruption and ocean acidification. The immediate costs of the Gulf blowout ran to tens of billions. Reasonable people can disagree on whether nuclear's non-greenhouse risks are acceptable, but it is very expensive to build and its dangers include chaos. Costs related to Japan's tsunami-striken reactors remain to be seen but may include enormous losses in agriculture and fisheries as fear of contamination spreads. That we insist on more of the same instead of pouring efforts into diversification and better alternatives indicates a hurried desperation to get energy despite great risk. It's the same mindset that brought us the Gulf oil blowout, gone global.

Oil, gas, and coal ran the 20th century but they're not the energy future. Oil, gas, and coal ran the 20th century but they're not the energy future. It is logically impossible that accessing increasingly difficult-to-reach sources of fossil fuels could actually be easier and cheaper than harnessing the clean eternal energies that have always powered planet Earth.

Can it really be preferable to go after oil in miles-deep pools beneath brutal open ocean, gas sources requiring fracturing bedrock and fundamentally jeopardizing groundwater, coal deposits that require blowing mountains apart, tar sand whose extraction destroys forests and kills rivers, and other abominations previously considered beyond the pale when we could harness the sunlight that drives all life, the algae that power the whole ocean (petroleum is mostly algae that's been naturally simmering for millions of years), the heat of the earth, and the force of the tides? It's a matter of learning how. That's the kind of thing we're good at when we put our minds and our will to it.

The Germans, Danes, and Chinese understand the moment and are seizing it. They'll be happy to sell us the energy technology that could have supported U.S. manufacturing and American jobs, had we not sent it overseas to more welcoming economies.

Meanwhile we in the U.S. continue wasting time and squandering leadership debating the merits of harnessing the clean, renewable energy that safely powers the whole planet. Clean energy is infinite and dirty energy is finite, so why do we insist on ignoring the obvious? There is still time for the U.S. to capture the energy future and to lead the world into the energy future. But we have to want to.

And we did. We elected Barack Obama because we wanted to put the country back into the hands of real people, not corporations masquerading as "persons." It's not a matter of avoiding class warfare; the class war is in full swing. It's a matter of fighting back or losing. Those of us who voted for Obama are still itching for the fight, but we need a leader we can rally behind, who can consistently and unabashedly articulate a clear vision for a bold and better future. More oil and gas and coal is not it.