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We Need a Sustainable Energy Plan

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Environmental issues haven't been a main topic of the election because the candidates are focusing on digestible "sound bites" and are unwilling to venture into the environmental vortex. Why? Because they have no credible environmental track record to promote (in the case of Obama) or no plan that can be explained in a few words or less (in the case of Romney). The candidates are setting up an either/or situation, in essence saying that we can take care of the economy or the environment, but not both, versus thinking of them as interrelated components of a healthy community. The candidates are not talking about the environment, but they are talking about energy policy because they can tie energy production to jobs, economic growth, and energy independence from the volatile Middle East, and these sound bites can help promote their platform.

The problem is that the U.S. energy platform is still predominantly a coal, oil and natural ga model, and it is the manmade emissions from these sources that are the key contributors to climate change. When we talk about our energy plan we are really talking about our environmental plan as the two are inextricably linked to one another. I propose we look at energy in a more sustainable, long-term manner wherein energy use, economic vitality, environmental quality and social justices are interrelated and vital components of a healthy community. The difficulty lies in translating this mix into a coherent and feasible plan, and it is here where both candidates struggle. When we think about a sustainable energy plan, we think about production, usage, and all of the connections between elements of a healthy society over the course of generations, not just the next ten years.

President Obama's primary focus is on new technologies including wind, solar and biofuel. The problem with the Obama energy plan is that it is mathematically impossible to achieve. The numbers are inflated in every category: projected return on investment, number of jobs these new technologies will create, the resulting boost to the economy, and the improvement in the carbon footprint. When new technologies emerge the often unrealistic exuberance of the promoters of these projects is easily spread to the operators who manage them and banks that fund them, who all then overestimate the upside and underestimate the downside in an effort to justify their investment. This is the nature of new technologies, and with Obama's portfolio so heavily weighted in favor of these new technologies, the boost to the economy and the offsetting improvement in the environmental situation will, at the end of the day, never be realized and will be found to be fiction by a very large margin.

Romney's approach is all about the current platform of coal, natural gas, and oil. For this reason, I have more confidence in Romney's numbers regarding the impact on jobs, the economy, and our carbon footprint. Having used these technologies over decades, we know the numbers. While this approach is still tied to a volatile global commodity platform, it does frame a roadmap to private sector investment with government funding of research and the removal of barriers to both old and new technologies. The plan is still light on the transition to clean energy and for this reason does not fully connect with conservatives who embrace their party's long history of stewardship and understand the science of climate change.

Either way, as a country, we cannot continue to base our energy policy on the flawed premise that we can lower gas prices by drilling our way to a panacea of "energy independence."

The reality is until we leave the carbon model behind, "energy independence," as the vision is being promoted today, will elude us. Oil, natural gas and coal are commodities whose price is set on the global market by supply and demand, and the reality is that global forces have positioned carbon energy on a pricing J curve that is beyond our control. Our continued reliance on carbon sources to fuel our economy will support price increases both in the U.S. and globally which will impact us financially while benefitting rivals like Iran, who produce a lot of oil.

Using less and producing more in North America will position us militarily to be more independent and in turn less vulnerable. However, the reality is that we won't ever produce as much oil as we consume unless we can significantly reduce consumption and neither party will address usage or efficiency right now because the truth is a reduction in consumption does not get us much economic bang for the buck in terms of boosting our economy with sales or job growth, so for this reason, usage is off the table for now.

Whether the candidates are right to support more drilling depends on how they've integrated increased drilling into their overall energy plan. Is it a short term band aid that will juice the economy or is it a bridge to an energy future that eventually will get us off predominantly carbon and on to a combination of technologies that will be there to serve our children and their children down the road? Even though we are producing more oil than ever before, gas at the pump will remain high and as we "frack" the carbon formation to loosen up the oil and produce more this process is an expensive proposition that has an environmental cost as well. What we need is a plan, and the imaginary panacea of "independence," the sound bite we keep hearing is really not a plan.

We need vision and real leadership on this issue as it has significant global economic, military, cultural and environmental repercussions both short and long term. In the past, visions of a more positive future often failed because policy makers would not address the underlying connections between the timing of economic change and the complex social, cultural, and environmental problems that we face.

With this in mind, today we need a viable sustainable energy plan and this will demand unprecedented collaboration, vision, and hard economics. It will require an emphasis on reducing consumption, with all the related economic pros and cons. It will include renewable technologies (with all the economic and environmental implications that entails), as well as oil, natural gas and coal. Policy decisions must be made with regard to production and use of these older technologies which shift emphasis as improvements are made to newer technologies. It is this mix of technologies, energy policies, research and usage that these two candidates must focus on in an effort to construct a plan that is sustainable over the longer term from both an economic, cultural, and environmental standpoint.

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