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Erik Rothenberg Headshot

Oil and Trouble

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Last week the Obama administration announced a reversal of its oft-stated campaign position on offshore oil drilling. Immediately framed by the media as a transparent strategy to win over Republicans in an effort to lay the groundwork to get cap and trade legislation passed, he managed to outrage people who supported his campaign while failing to move Republicans one inch. Let's not kid ourselves -- we are now fighting two untenable energy wars, one for oil in Iraq and another for gas in Afghanistan. It is imperative that the President define and execute on a visionary energy goal that will meet and exceed our highest values as a nation. We can help him with that, because his offshore oil drilling plan wasn't it.

What truly struck me about Obama's announcement was the Orwellian double talk employing the clever use of language that broadcast a change of plan, but in reality only reinforced the status quo he once sought to change. Obama said, "I want to emphasize that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy. And the only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and the long term. To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake".

Well, let's break this language down. Prior to launching the URSULA Project (, I spent seven years running a renewable energy company, trading green energy and carbon offsets and developing solar projects, including the largest of its kind at the time on Ft. Carson Army Base - and am still involved in large-scale solar projects via I can translate the euphemisms used in the energy world to shed light on Obama's comments.

Consider this "broader strategy" of relying on "homegrown fuels and clean energy." First, there is no such industry term "homegrown fuels" -- it is just a new, folksy way of describing any fuels we get within our borders or territorial waters- with coal, natural gas and offshore drilling of oil and gas accounting for over 95% of that total.

Second, when Obama says "clean energy", this doesn't mean "renewable energy" like solar or wind, but rather forms of energy which, for political purposes, have managed to get classified as "clean." These include "clean burning" but CO2-releasing natural gas, non-CO2 emitting but toxic waste-generating and water-polluting nuclear power, and "clean coal", a coal industry-sponsored definition (illusion) which has shown zero sign of materializing (to say nothing of the well-foreshadowed mine disaster in West Virginia this week).

Next, let's look at moving away from an economy that runs on "foreign oil." To suggest that domestic drilling and exploitation of America's "homegrown" natural resources will break our dependency on oil-rich foreign states is completely disingenuous; America holds 2% of the world's oil and consumes 20% of it. Increased demand for energy only enshrines the status quo.

Finally, let's ask how this move is "strengthening our economy in the short and long term". Tapping new reserves will not yield a drop of oil or gas for 8-10 years; we will then need to wait another decade or two before these resources are fully exploited. The federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) estimates that 130 million barrels of oil and trillion cubic feet of natural gas are available in the Outer Continental Shelf; in real terms, this means a yield of less than seven days of oil and 18 days of gas to power this country! Neither outcome is more than a statistical blip in either the short or long term.

In the meantime, the federal government continues to subsidize the status quo. Approximately 80% of Department of Energy support goes to fossil fuels, nuclear energy and efficiency programs for fossil fuels, while less than 20% goes to renewable energy.

So basically, Obama has told us that he has a broader strategy for transitioning to what amounts to the status quo by a different name. Given the well-recognized social, political, economic and environmental pathologies of this path to ourselves and others, it is fair to expect more from a man who was given a mandate of change from the electorate.

As a social entrepreneur, I work on the URSULA project, a bid to measure anything and everything against a standard that serves all life on earth. Since our system may be applied to any context, we could create an URSULA process on America's energy needs. The most crucial aspect of this is to set a clear top-level goal. As an example, this might be "Transition to a 100% domestic and renewable energy resource platform within (a given time frame, say) 25 years at the lowest possible cost. Then we would work to solve that problem.

America is over being an industrial producer. Our future lies in developing and exporting the technologies which will drive the next century, and that includes energy technology. Crucially, this means we need to get over our wasteful mentality when it comes to resources and focus our attention on efficiencies, or how we can do more with less. Our thought leaders in politics, business and culture need to drive this message home and convince people that it aligns with American values.

But there is no leadership coming out of the White House on a safe and sustainable energy future, just more of the same, more artfully worded. Such double talk from Bush could be excused as unconscious ramblings from an empty suit in the pockets of big oil, but unfortunately, there is simply no way President Obama, who as a former editor of the Harvard Law Review, represents the pinnacle of intellectual achievement in this country, is somehow unaware of his deceptive remarks. To fail to recognize this reality -- how shall we say -- would be a mistake.

About us: URSULAproject, a 501(c)3 organization, seeks funding to continue its mission. Visit us at

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