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The Real Energy Future

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In this overheated political season, everyone is focused on the short run and even our reasonably thoughtful president continues to succumb to the mantra of the moment. The president is trying very hard to focus on jobs and the economy, and the more immediate the benefit the better. On Friday the 13th President Obama used his executive authority to form an interagency working group to encourage hydrofracking. According to the president's order:

"In 2011, natural gas provided 25 percent of the energy consumed in the United States. Its production creates jobs and provides economic benefits to the entire domestic production supply chain ... with appropriate safeguards, natural gas can provide a cleaner source of energy than other fossil fuels... To formalize and promote ongoing interagency coordination, this order establishes a high-level, interagency working group that will facilitate coordinated Administration policy efforts to support safe and responsible unconventional domestic natural gas development."

It is obvious that we will be using more natural gas in the United States than ever before, and it would be nice if this gas was extracted without destroying vital ecosystems and groundwater sources. It is true that natural gas burns cleaner than coal and oil, but it still pollutes and emits greenhouse gasses. All of this emphasis on extracting fossil fuels from the earth needs to be seen as a short to medium term solution to our energy needs.

Just as we are in the midst of a transformation from land line phones to cell phones, we will someday find ourselves in a transformation from a fossil fuel based economy to a post fossil fuel economy. Naysayers beware -- the fossil fuel free energy future will come. The only thing we don't know is when it will come and what technologies will fuel it.

Why am I so confident? First, the modern economy is built on energy. We need lots of it and India, China and eventually Africa will need even more than we do. The motivation to develop new sources of energy is incredibly high. Second, fossil fuel extraction damages ecosystems, and human life depends on well-functioning ecosystems. Third, fossil fuel use emits greenhouse gasses that cause climate change, and climate change disrupts human settlements, agriculture and infrastructure. These disruptions are expensive and climate change provides a strong motivation to develop alternatives to fossil fuels. Fourth, fossil fuels are finite and will eventually run out. As fossil fuels become scarce they will become more expensive, creating an even stronger motivation to develop lower cost alternatives. Fifth, fossil fuels are expensive to transport. All of these factors are stimulating a world-wide technological race to replace fossil fuels with other sources of energy.

As I've written before, somewhere in a garage in America or in basement in China, some teenager is working on a low-cost solar cell and battery that will make her a billionaire and reduce the cost of energy for everyone. OK, maybe it won't be a single teenager, but a team of older folks; and maybe it will be a series of inventions from a world scientific community that has never been more interconnected or in closer constant communication. But it will happen and when it does, the powerful interests that control the fossil fuel supplies will either get with the program, or get wiped out. Kodak was slow to recognize the end of the film business and ended up bankrupt. Borders couldn't survive the decline of the paper book. The oil companies use politics to fight dirty, so they will continue to promote fossil fuels, but the global clean energy business will not be stopped by campaign contributions and high-priced lobbyists. My guess is that these companies are smart enough to adapt to the fossil fuel free energy future.

Which brings me back to hydrofracking: We will be mining fossil fuels for the next several decades and since its going to happen we need to do it in a way that is as safe as possible. Mining should take place in the least fragile ecosystems and should be tightly governed by an aggressive regulatory regime. Damage will take place, but effective policing will reduce the destruction and the costs of regulation will not be ruinous. There will be plenty of short-term profits to be made by exploiting these natural gas resources, and a few percentage points of profit devoted to safety can be easily afforded. We just need to make sure we don't get too greedy for our own good.

Many of our economic and environmental problems stem from our dependence on fossil fuels. Nevertheless, we will be using lots of these fuels until alternatives are developed. When these alternatives come, fossil fuel use will continue for many decades and so we need to develop the technology of carbon capture and storage and we also need to learn to mine fossil fuels without damaging the environment. That is why I support the president's initiative to encourage and coordinate "unconventional domestic natural gas development." We need to learn how to effectively regulate fossil fuel extraction. The idea that we can simply stop mining fossil fuels is not realistic.

All of us are addicted to energy. It is more than a little hypocritical to oppose the use of fossil fuels while typing on our computers, listening to our iPods and communicating over the Internet. The jobs and economic growth so central to the presidential election campaign now underway depend on the availability of plentiful and reasonably priced energy. We use energy so frequently in the course of the day, that most of the time we are not even aware we are using it. We can use energy more efficiently than we do, but our real energy future will require much more energy than our energy present. The only question is the degree and intensity of the environmental damage that will result from our use of energy. We have the ability to contain that damage. Do we have the political will required to do so? That's a very good question.

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