Bad Movies & Energy - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity

Policy Issues

Bad Movies & Energy

Have you ever seen one of those movies where the only thing that keeps the story going is that the characters fail to do the obvious thing to solve their problems? Sometimes I want to shout at the screen, "Why don't you just call the police?" or "Why don't you just tell her you love her?" or whatever. But of course the characters don't, because if they did, the movie would be over in five minutes, and no one would pay to see a five-minute movie.

Our nation's present energy problems are like that. We could easily solve our energy in a few years if we just took two obvious steps.

  1. Drill for oil. Right now, the Federal government bans drilling in those areas containing 85% of our known offshore oil reserves, and an astounding 97% of land oil reserves. (Statistics from the Bureau of Land Management as reported by the American Petroleum Institute.) The justification for these laws is that they are necessary to protect the environment. According to the government's Minerals Management Service, oil companies presently spill about .001% of what they drill. 150 times more oil is released onto our shores by natural seepage from the ocean floor than from man-made spills.
  2. Use nuclear power. Nuclear power produces far less pollution than oil and is far cheaper: a 2005 study found that it cost 1.7 cents to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity with nuclear power compared to over 8 cents with oil, and we all know what's happened to the price of oil since 2005. (See World Nuclear Association.) But government regulations and protests by anti-nuclear groups make building a nuclear power plant so time-consuming and expensive that no new plant has been started in the US since 1973. Among the bizarre regulations is that it is illegal to recycle partially used nuclear fuel. Utilities are required by law to throw it away. The stated reason for this law was that terrorists might hijack a shipment on the way to or from a recycling facility. That's like saying that because terrorists actually do hijack airplanes, that therefore all air travel should be banned. France has been recycling nuclear fuel for decades with no apparent problems. Similarly, breeder reactors, which produce more fuel than they consume, are also illegal. (They don't produce fuel out of nothing, of course, but out of material not usable as fuel.)

Senator Richard Durbin and presidential candidate Barack Obama have both said, "We can't drill our way out of this." (Different speeches, identical words.) That's like saying that you can't eat your way out of being hungry! If you're short on energy, the obvious solution is: get more energy.

Many anti-drilling politicians say its pointless to start new drilling because it will take five to ten years to get oil from any new drilling to market. Okay. So five years from now, do they want to be celebrating that gas prices are finally coming down? Or complaining because no one had the foresight to start new drilling five years ago?

In the 2000 presidential debates, Al Gore said that "another big difference" between him and George Bush was that, "Bush is proposing to open up ... the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the big oil companies to go in and start producing oil there. I think that is the wrong choice. ... the oil wouldn't start flowing for many years into the future. ... We have to bet on the future and move beyond the current technologies to have a whole new generation of more efficient, cleaner, energy technology." Five years is too long to wait for new energy to arrive. So his fast track plan? Invent an entirely new type of engine for our automobiles, do the engineering to turn this from a laboratory curiosity to a practical product, adapt an existing automobile body to work with this new engine or develop a new automobile body to fit it, retool factories to produce the new engine and car or build new factories to produce them, build a chain of fueling stations across the country to dispense the fuel to power this new engine, build a distribution system to get the fuel to this chain of stations, train mechanics across the country to maintain the new vehicles, and then produce enough of these new vehicles and convince Americans to buy them to make a significant impact on the nation's total energy consumption. Apparently he thinks all of this can be done in a couple of months, tops. But drilling new oil wells in places where we already know the oil is there and using it in existing cars -- that will just take way too long.

By the way, that was back in 2000 that the Democrats shot down Bush's proposals for drilling offshore or in ANWR, because that oil wouldn't be available for five years. If we had started back then, we'd be enjoying the use of that oil now.

Yes, we can't solve the problem tomorrow. But we could start working on it tomorrow, and in a few years we'd start seeing the payback.

Not that I expect it to happen. Like the movies where the characters refuse to take the obvious steps to solve their problems, our energy crisis continues because the politicians want it to continue. The Republicans had six years with control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, and they failed to take any significant steps to solve our energy problems. The Democrats took over both houses of Congress two years ago and have done equally nothing. Our politicians are convinced that the way to get re-elected is not to solve a problem, but to promise that they will solve the problem after the next election. Then once the election comes, any solution is postponed until after the next election. Forever.

(If you believe that the risks to the environment from new drilling outweigh the advantages of more and cheaper oil, that's a different debate. But at the very least, if you take that position, you have no right to then complain about high gas prices.)

© 2008 by Jay Johansen


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