How to Cure Fossil Fuel Amnesia

09/20/2010 03:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

As BP gets ready to declare the Deepwater Horizon leak permanently plugged, the cry of "drill baby drill" seems to be slowly gaining voice as America once again develops a case of the dreaded fossil fuel amnesia. Symptoms include forgetting the environmental and financial risks we incur when we drill for oil in deep water, when we remove the tops of mountains to get to the coal inside it and when we burn hydrocarbons and emit greenhouse gasses. In a recent piece I wrote for the NRDC magazine OnEarth, I observed that:

"The modern economy is hooked on petroleum, and we are a bunch of addicts increasingly desperate for our next fix. When we drill for oil a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico, we are like junkies in a dangerous alley, willing to go anywhere to score."

It is time to start the transition to a green energy economy. If we do this well, it will take at least a quarter century. If we do it with a sense of urgency, we can turn the corner in a decade. This will require both basic government-funded research and development as well as commercial research. In the long run, the only way for this transition to succeed is for non fossil fuel based energy to be cheaper than fossil fuels. Part of the current strategy of regulation and cap and trade is to make fossil fuels more expensive, making renewable energy more cost competitive. In the long run, that is a losing approach. What we need to do is make renewable energy less expensive than fossil fuels from the start.

This is not an argument against a greenhouse gas cap. Greenhouse gasses are air pollutants that should be regulated. This is an argument that we should follow the direct path to green energy. Let's forge this path as an improvement over the current way we fuel our economy. There are a number of concrete steps we can take to move this transition along:

  1. Begin with energy efficiency. Use federal government subsidies, like the proposed "cash for caulkers program" to fund household insulation and energy efficiency measures. Use a federal surcharge on utility bills, like the successful one in California, to fund these subsidies. Only fund the measures that will reduce household power bills. This fee can also fund the development of a national smart grid- another way to save energy and permit distributed generation as well. Smart grids make it easier for households to sell surplus power to the grid.
  2. Government must provide massive funding of basic university, and if possible industry-based research in solar cells and batteries. Government must fund basic university and Department of Energy lab research in non-fission nuclear energy. We need a form of nuclear power that does not produce waste or bombs.
  3. Government must provide massive funding of basic research in carbon capture and storage. Fossil fuels and greenhouse gasses are not going away any time soon. We need to capture the greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere.

What is needed is a technological transformation that moves us from fossil fuels to renewable energy. This type of transformation requires government resources, since no corporation can afford the long term, speculative investment required. The ideologically based- myth that the private sector can do this on its own is a dangerous impediment to progress. The private sector is clearly best at making and marketing renewable energy resources, and it will play an important role in commercializing government funded research. However, it can't do the necessary research and development on its own. Laptop computers, jet engines, cell phones, satellites, and the internet are all examples of government funded technologies that have grown into massive private businesses. We need the same resources once spent on shrinking computers for missiles and space craft to be devoted to developing low cost, non fossil fuel based energy.

An additional fifty to one hundred billion dollars per year is needed immediately to fund this science. As urgent as increased funding is, we also need Presidential leadership to convince everyone that, "yes we (really) can." As part of the nation's economic revival and with an emphasis on job growth, the President should make the green energy transition a major theme of his Presidency. Like John F. Kennedy's famous space race speech on May 25, 1961, before a joint session of Congress, President Obama should announce a ten year goal to move the nation from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources. The idea is that by 2020, less than 50% of America's energy would come from fossil fuels. This May is the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's speech. President Obama could honor his memory and perhaps reignite that sense of national purpose by timing his speech for May 25, 2011. It's time for grand gestures and a project that demonstrates our nation's pragmatic ability to roll up our sleeves and get to work. I can't think of a better national project or a better response to these renewed calls to "drill baby drill."