The politics of energy were transformed on April 20th when a BP oil rig exploded and started spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of over 200,000 gallons a day. Over the past few days, the Coast Guard and BP have deployed floating booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants, and also set controlled fires in a futile effort to contain the damage of the worst environmental disaster in a generation. Eleven workers were lost and presumed dead in the explosion.
Only a few weeks ago 29 miners were killed in an explosion in Massey Energy Company's Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. This was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970 when 38 miners died in Hyden, Kentucky.
Meanwhile, off the coast of Cape Cod over the objections of influential local residents like the Kennedy family, the Interior Department recently approved a major off-shore wind farm. The overall move to renewable energy is in a holding pattern due to the scarcity of capital for investment in what some see as a speculative resource. I suspect that due to recent events the holding pattern will soon be replaced by action.
The economy that provides such benefits and wonders to all of us depends on massive amounts of energy to function and our need for energy knows no bounds. We are addicts and our addiction has reached the point at which we will sacrifice human life and ecosystems, oceans and sea life to ensure our fix. Our society, economy and political stability depend on low priced energy and massive amounts of it. The dead workers in the Gulf and in a West Virginia mine and the incredible destruction of the Gulf region's ecology are the cost side of a cost/benefit equation that many still see as largely benefit. But this latest disaster could be a game changer. The balance may be shifting.
Over the next several months the Gulf's fishing and tourism industry will be decimated. The pictures and stories we will see should end the cry of "drill baby drill" for the foreseeable future. These stories are custom-made for the media and the strength of their emotional impact should not be under-estimated. The Obama Administration will soon be backing off its support for new off-shore drilling and will pursue the transition away from fossil fuels with greater urgency.
For better or worse, catastrophe is a prime motivator of change and action. The accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl destroyed the U.S. market for civilian nuclear power. This oil spill will clarify the environmental costs of fossil fuels in a way that the climate issue cannot. These issues are both massive, but unlike the climate problem, the spill's impact is visible and immediate. It does not take place in the future and does not require scientific literacy to understand. All you need is the ability to see the pictures, hear the sad stories or smell the death and destruction.
While the catastrophe in the Gulf will help expose the nature of our energy addiction, the solution remains elusive. The modern global economy requires energy and lots of it. Walking, biking, sitting in the dark, and going back to the land are not viable options. Most of the planet's nearly seven billion people live in cities. They wouldn't know how to get back to the land even if there was enough land left to get back to. Given the emerging wealth of nations like China and India, we should assume that we will need more energy in the next several decades rather than less of it.
We saw the political impact of the Great Recession. Threaten the world's energy supply and that recession would easily become a Great Depression. Human misery and political instability invariably would follow. For the politicians of the world, as James Carville once famously observed, "It's the economy, stupid." So the idea of slowing down or conserving our way out of this crisis is not realistic. We can be more efficient in our use of energy and perform the same functions with far less energy. Nevertheless, after we do that we will still need to deal with the finite nature of fossil fuels. Eventually fossil fuels will run out. They are already getting more difficult to extract, and when resources get scarce, they get more expensive.
The way out of the political, economic and ecological challenges of energy is through technological innovation. The optimal energy source will be decentralized, low in capital requirements and environmentally benign. In the next two decades we will need to rely on off-the-shelf (and suboptimal) technologies like windfarms, energy efficiency and anything else that works. Basic renewable energy R & D must be government funded on a crash basis. I would focus on solar cells and batteries. Commercial interests should be encouraged through tax deductions and credits to invest in commercial applications of promising R & D.
The media and web coverage of the oil spill will be extensive and long lasting. While it won't rival Tiger Woods or Michael Jackson, it will be hard to avoid, heart wrenching and graphic. And it will change the politics of energy and environment for a generation.