'All of the Above' Energy Plans Should Really Be 'Some of the Above'

09/11/2012 11:52 am ET | Updated Nov 11, 2012
  • J. Mijin Cha Fellow, Worker Institute at Cornell University

Something that you hear about quite a lot these days is the "all of the above" energy plan. The phrase is in both party platforms with the general idea being that our energy needs should be met by using all forms of energy available -- coal, oil, gas, nuclear, renewables, biofuels, etc. Diversifying our energy sources and moving away from strictly relying on fossil fuels is a good idea. For one, it would make energy prices less volatile because we wouldn't be as dependent on a single source. Two, it would (in theory) increase the amount of renewable energy produced and decrease the amount of carbon emissions, which would help fight climate change. This last point is the one emphasized in President Obama's speech at the DNC.

However, the truth is that we can either pursue an "all of the above" energy plan or we can fight climate change. We cannot do both and here's why: The increased drilling for oil and gas, along with the commitment to "clean" coal, will not reduce our greenhouse gases and the priority will be placed on draining these resources rather than making the investments needed for renewable energy production and expansion. "Clean" coal has received nearly $7 billion in government support since 2005, yet it doesn't seem to be any closer to being a reality. Investing in these types of programs takes funding away from renewable energy development, which is a far more proven and reliable entity.

When President Obama refers to a 100-year supply of natural gas, like he did in his last State of the Union, he's talking about fracking. We've heavily covered the dangers of fracking, which alone make it undesirable. But, even more than that, switching to natural gas is unlikely to make much of a dent in our greenhouse gas emissions due to the amount of methane that leaks from fracking wells and the fact that cheap natural gas will likely to lead to more consumption, not a net reduction in energy used. If the methane leaks are worse than thought and if fracking detracts from renewable energy production, there will actually be an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

As for increasing oil exploration, there is very little that is left to exploit. Most oil and gas on federal land is already available. The little that is left to explore will not make a meaningful impact on oil and gas supplies, but it will cause significant and irreversible environmental harm. Not to mention that production wouldn't increase for 10 to 20 years once drilling begins in these areas and it would do little to nothing to bring us closer to energy independence.

Instead of trying to drain every last drop of fossil fuels from the ground, we should be investing the time and resources into substantially increasing renewable energy production. I'm not naïve enough to think that we can switch immediately into being fueled exclusively by clean energy but we need to start our transition now. Instead of ramping up fossil fuel exploration, we should be doing the opposite. It will take some time to have a renewable energy infrastructure in place and instead of spending time and money on extreme energy sources, we should be investing in our future.

In reality, "all of the above" should refer to wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, and other renewable sources, not dead-end fossil fuels.

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