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Raymond J. Learsy Headshot

The Energy Solution That Dare Not Speak Its Name

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Quite incredibly, over a span of two weeks during the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Aspen Energy Conference, wherein the themes of global warming and oil dependency were discussed again and again in various forums by formidable personages of government, the press, industry, think tanks and environmental groups, the issue this post focuses on was not brought up by a single panelist. Speakers of exceptional standing, achievement and competence -- President Clinton, John Doerr, Thomas L. Friedman, and panelists such as Gary Hart spoke eloquently on the dangers of energy dependence and most especially and passionately on the existential crisis of encroaching climate change. Yet here again the issue was not brought up. It was as though it has simply left the field of dialogue, or perhaps been pushed away. As William W. Hogan, Professor at the JFK School at Harvard, said during the Energy Policy Forum, talking in general terms, "People are very creative in avoiding the only thing that works".

In session after session the growing risks confronting us became abundantly clear in lectures and seminars at the Aspen Institute which I attended. These included the likes of "National Security Consequences of US Oil Dependency", "Power Poverty and Progress: How Energy Effects Economic Development and Global Stability", "Nuclear Proliferation: Armageddon of Balance of Power", "Green is the New Red, White and Blue: Lecture by Tom Friedman", "An Agricultural Revolution: Climate, Energy and the Future of Food In an Overpopulated World", "The Face of Terrorism: Global Movement or Global Network".

It became apparent to everyone in attendance at these and other sessions like those touching on China's explosive growth and growing CO2 emissions, titled "China: Emerging Superpower" that the dangers are real, they are enormous, and they are here today. That the time to act was yesterday and that today is already late in the game

Interestingly, The Aspen Energy Policy Forum followed on the heels The Aspen Ideas Festival. The Energy Policy Forum was attended by luminaries of the oil and electrical power industry, by representatives of think tanks, industry associations, academia, Wall Street, regulatory authorities and on. Many issues were discussed in depth and from the vantage point of those with day to day experience in the field -- issues such as oil dependence, peak oil, interdependence, nuclear power, electricity markets, renewables, demand reduction, auto fuel efficiency. These were pros, among the best and the brightest in the field.

Their argumentation was cogent, backed up by acres of charts and graphs. Much tech speak with points that appeared solid and well thought out. But then, after panelist upon panelist was heard the thrust of their argumentation began to take on a chilling dimension for me. I underline this as a subjective opinion, but it became clear to me at least, that those with a vested interest in oil, oil production, oil and energy distribution, oil governance, are all for conservation, protecting the environment, as long as it does not negatively impact the price of oil and energy. That a sub rosa agenda is in place, to stretch out fundamental and meaningful change as long as elegantly possible. Like, yes, lets consider ethanol and alternative fuels, but we don't really have a viable infrastructure in place, and can it really displace meaningful amounts of oil. What is the environmental impact of all bio based fuels among such as cellulosic, corn, sugar based ethanol? Of course we support biofuels if they are sustainable. Translation, lets stay with oil as long as we can, or as long as we can ask questions that cause programmed doubt to derail the urgent development of alternative fuels and alternative solutions.

Yes, let's consider plug in electric vehicles, but has the technology of high volume batteries been worked through as of yet? Yes, lets do wind farms but they can only generate a small portion of our energy needs. Yes, nuclear energy should play a role. But what of all those regulatory hurdles and waste disposal problems? Its all going to take years and in the meantime peak oil is around the corner and India, China and the rest of the world is going to require more and more of our oil. By allowing markets to work, we will have to charge more and more to restrain demand. And here's the catch -- please pay attention -- we must let the invisible hand of the market work, encouraging ever higher prices for oil and fossil fuels thereby permitting those "expensive, capital intensive" energy alternatives to take hold, if, of course they work at all. But even if they do, its going to take much, much time. Maybe we'll get some of it done by 2030, and if all goes well biofuels/biomass will make up 16% of a far larger world fuel component than its 1% share today. If the price for oil and fossil fuels become punishingly high, well you will certainly understand that's the "invisible hand of the market" once again. In a way consider it our contribution to motivating you to switch to alternatives. You needn't say thank you, but it would be nice.

The level of self satisfaction among the oil industry players was palatable as if to say "We got the oil, we are going to get ever higher prices for it, and we even have a good story to go along with our bubbly good fortune. And to top it off everybody thinks we're good guys." As Phillip Verleger, the noted oil economist put it in an Aspen Idea's seminar, that oil prices are on the march to triple digits and not with a "1" as the first number, and all that within five years. The oil folks at the session could hardly contain their ear to ear smiles.

So there you have it. There we sit like sitting ducks in the sights of the oil industry both foreign and domestic, our national security at risk, our environment in danger and our economy held hostage to ongoing supplies of oil without which, were there to be a major disruption, we would be exposed to severe bouts of inflation, ever higher interest rates, unemployment and deep recession. We are in their thrall and we have to pay their rent for years and years to come, Right? Well, wrong!

The one thing the oil patch and their allies fear is something they deem us incapable of achieving. Seriously curtailing demand for gasoline! Were we to take demand in hand as a national mission and to sharply reduce our gasoline consumption we would almost certainly:

- Collapse the price of oil
- Reduce our CO2 emissions in a truly significant and meaningful way
- Free us from our dependence on duplicitous foreign suppliers
- Realign the balance between suppliers of oil and its consumers (us)
- Greatly enhance our national security
- Result in the rebirth and an enormous stimulus to our automobile sector, through the steeply enhanced demand for flex fuel, plug in vehicles. We have some 230 million cars on the road of which only six million have a flex fuel capability.
- Result in a boom to our farm belt whereby the billions we are sending to malign foreign regimes would now stay at home
- Create an immediate boom and new jobs as our economy is forced to focus on clean renewable energy sources be it biomass, wind, geothermal, solar power along with a wave of new and imaginative technological and agricultural innovations.
- The economic benefits of gearing up and developing a national distribution system permitting access to biofuel and plug in facilities throughout the land. We have 160,000 filling stations and only 1002 with ethanol/biofuel capability
- Renewed interest and needed massive investment in our mass transportation system, especially our passenger rail service such as Amtrak
- Not least, revesting us as a nation with a level of moral authority in that we, the world's most gluttonous oil consumer, will have assumed the mantle of conservation leadership.

If you haven't guessed by now what I'm driving at or from, don't despair. In earlier posts ("The Ozone Sized Hole In Al Gore's Global Warning", 07/03/07, and "Capping America's Gasoline Consumption Through a Manageable 'Eco-Fuels' Program", 01/08/07) I called it a "voucher program", afraid I would scare everyone away, myself included. Let me now spell it out for you and for me to see what It looks like on paper, this word " ...that dare not speak its name": "GAS-RATIONING".

By that is meant rationing of petroleum based gasoline. Consumption of alternatives be it ethanol, biomass or biobased fuels generally, plug in electric power, etc. would continue to be open ended.

The leadership for this initiative will not come from this president nor from any in his administration. Certainly not from his Department of Energy. It is an administration totally wedded to the mini step, long horizon approach and to the adage that "market forces will bring about the changes" as Karl Rove said in "conversation" with Walter Isaacson at the Ideas Festival.

"Market forces" is the bromide that the oil industry, and those wedded to its interests, including this administration, cravenly hide behind, in lieu of exercising the leadership so urgently needed to meet our existential challenges. As one Forum participant put it: "the invisible hand of the market remains invisible".

This administration's near 'hands off' policy and lack of any viable effort to immediately curb demand, and its benign indifference to the escalating price of gasoline that continue to enrich the oil companies and our foreign suppliers at the public's expense while exacerbating the risk to our national security, borders on scandal. This while Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Venezuela and the rest of their OPEC brethren (controlling 40% of the worlds oil supply) have no hesitation curbing production to manipulate prices ever higher. In the oil game, as ever, the consumer is playing against loaded dice.

That they have the oil resources, while we do not have the inner resources to systematically curtail demand is what the oil industry is counting on. We must show them to be wrong, not only for ourselves but for those generations to come, including the progeny of our oil patch brothers. It is time for Congress to lead.

Oil rationing during WWll brought us a shared sense of mission and dignity to the home front. We didn't fight and win that war to now become vassals of the oil barons!