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The Debate That Will Define America's Future

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, the Massey, West Virginia coal mine accident, the Tennessee coal ash disaster in 2008, the BP oil refinery disaster in Texas in 2006, and countless other fossil fuel disasters are finally having an effect on public opinion. And the sting of record prices from 2008 is still in the recent memory of American consumers. Fully 2/3 of Americans believe Congress needs to make our country's energy needs a top priority.

Recent polls have found, however, that a shrinking portion of America believes that climate change is a human-caused problem or that we need to take serious action to mitigate climate change. A May, 2010, poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that only 32% of Americans thought that climate change should be a “top priority” for Congress  (see chart, below).

This is the debate, revolving around energy and climate change, that will define America’s future. It is not the only debate that will do so, but I believe it is the most important debate we will have over the coming decades.

I’ve written frequently on peak oil and climate change. It is because of my fears about peak oil that I am heartened to see a solid two-thirds of Americans agree with me that addressing our energy needs should be a top congressional priority. This is a bipartisan area of agreement, with 75% of Democrats, 64% of Independents and 61% of Republicans agreeing that it should be a top priority.

No wonder then that the Kerry/Lieberman Senate bill introduced on May 12 is called the “American Power Act” and does not mention “climate change” in its title. However, this bill is very much an energy and climate change bill. The debate about its merits is complex and my early reaction is that it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. But it’s a start and it may actually have a chance of passing in 2010 — albeit a slim chance as we go into major mid-term elections.

So why do I think the debate about energy and climate change is the debate that will define America’s future? It’s because the peak oil situation is actually more dire now than when energy prices were sky-high back in 2008. Prices are relatively low because of the ongoing global recession. Oil prices were rebounding steadily this year, up to almost $90/barrel before the euro crisis knocked them back down to about $70 (prices were as high as $147/barrel, leading to $5/gallon gasoline, in the middle of 2008 before the recession hit hard).

But there is now a growing consensus among energy economists and analysts that as soon as the global recovery gets under way in a serious way that prices will once again skyrocket. The situation is more dire now than before the recession, when prices were much higher, because the recession is leading to cancellation of many projects that would otherwise have gone forward. This means that we’re looking at major shortfalls in oil supplies as the global economy gains steam.

While I’m not a supporter of oil as an ongoing source of energy, due to the obvious problems of major spills — with the Gulf of Mexico tragedy as a stark reminder of this ever-present danger — air pollution, energy security and climate change, among other problems, I recognize that we can’t transition overnight to alternatives to oil. It is the largest source of our energy and the overwhelmingly dominant fuel source for transportation. It will take decades for a smooth transition to non-petroleum energy sources for transportation, as described in a major report commissioned in 2005 by the Department of Energy from Robert Hirsch and his associates.

As Hirsch writes, if we don’t get serious about the transition at least 20 years ahead of a peak in global oil production we are likely to see major problems emerge in the U.S. and abroad.

We are, however, probably at or near the peak now, at least for conventional oil supplies, which are the large majority of our current global production. 2005 was the peak year for conventional oil production thus far. July, 2008, was the peak month, right as the global recession hit (see figure, below). We won’t know for some time if these are all-time highs, but they may well be. And if not now, it’s likely to be not too far off, as a growing number of analysts are warning.

But haven’t people been predicting an impending peak in oil production for decades — and always been proven wrong? Well, some predictions have indeed been proven wrong. This time around, however, we have the major “official” organizations warning stridently of issues with energy security and supplies, which was not previously the case. The International Energy Agency, formed after the oil crises of the 1970s to ensure that that similar crises would never afflict the western nations (OECD), stated in their 2008  World Energy Outlook:

The world’s energy system is at a crossroads. Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable — environmentally, economically, socially. But that can — and must — be altered; there’s still time to change the road we’re on. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the future of human prosperity depends on how successfully we tackle the two central energy challenges facing us today: securing the supply of reliable and affordable energy; and effecting a rapid transformation to a low-carbon, efficient and environmentally benign system of energy supply. What is needed is nothing short of an energy revolution.

The IEA concluded:

Securing energy supplies and speeding up the transition to a low-carbon energy system both call for radical action by governments — at national and local levels.

In August of 2009, the IEA was even more strident in its warnings. The UK’s Independent newspaper reported:

The world is heading for a catastrophic energy crunch that could cripple a global economic recovery because most of the major oil fields in the world have passed their peak production, a leading energy economist has warned.

Higher oil prices brought on by a rapid increase in demand and a stagnation, or even decline, in supply could blow any recovery off course, said Dr Fatih Birol, the chief economist at the respected International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris, which is charged with the task of assessing future energy supplies by OECD countries.

Later in 2009, two IEA whistleblowers went public and claimed that the situation was even worse than the IEA was stating publicly. The UK’s Guardian newspaper reported in November: “A … senior IEA source, who has now left but was … unwilling to give his name, said a key rule at the organization was that it was ‘imperative not to anger the Americans’ but the fact was that there was not as much oil in the world as has been admitted. ‘We have (already) entered the ‘peak oil’ zone. I think that the situation is really bad,’ he added.”

So what do we do?

I had the pleasure recently of attending the Heartland Institute’s 4th International Conference on Climate Change. This year’s topic was “reconsidering the science and economics.” This conference is well-known as the “skeptics’ conference” on climate change. And indeed it is, with very few speakers or attendees hewing to the mainstream scientific view that climate change is a very serious human-caused problem. I attended, however, because I am a firm believer in dialogue. (In the spirit of full disclosure I was provided a small honorarium to attend). Whether it’s international relations, family issues or energy and climate change policy, there is always room for dialogue.

Those now in the scientific mainstream on climate change fought for decades to achieve their mainstream status. And like many mainstream thought trends, there is a reluctance by today’s mainstream climate scientists or policymakers to debate issues that they feel have been debated to death and have been resolved sufficiently well to allow for policy choices to be made.

What is clear, however, is that while there is a large majority of scientists and scientific bodies (like the National Academy of Sciences, World Meteorological Association, etc.) that believe that human-caused climate change is a major problem, there is no such consensus with the American public. In fact, the number of Americans who agree that climate change is a major problem has been going backwards in the last couple of years. So to pretend that a majority of the American public agrees with the mainstream scientific views on climate change, and thus to ignore the skeptics is, in my view, highly counter-productive. It is partly this attitude that has led to an erosion of support among the American public for making climate change mitigation a priority in Congress.

I spoke on “Renewable energy and the transformation of America” at the Heartland Institute conference in Chicago. I was not pressured or harassed in any way with respect to my presentation or its contents. I received many good questions after my presentation. My key point in this presentation and in every public presentation I’ve given over the last five years on these issues has been this: a rapid transition to energy efficiency and renewable energy is desirable and necessary for a number of reasons. Climate change is one of those reasons but we could entirely ignore the climate change debate and still have about ten compelling reasons to make this transition.

I focused on wind power as a good example because it is growing very fast in the U.S. and is currently the most cost-effective renewable energy technology. Wind power has grown over 30% each year in the US in the past decade and about the same globally. I discussed what I call law “Moore’s Law in renewable energy” and how we are in the middle of a quiet revolution right now. This is the case because with 30-40% growth rates the installed capacity of wind and solar doubles every two years. It doesn’t take long for this doubling effect to yield transformational change. I calculate that at even half this rate of growth through 2030 fully half of all electricity in the U.S. will come from wind and solar power, up from about 3% today.

My final point in Chicago was this: IEA and many others are calling for a revolution in energy to mitigate energy supply and climate change issues. We are in the middle of such a revolution right now and as long as we can “simply” continue the current growth rates of wind, solar, energy efficiency and other renewables we will have a good chance of transitioning away from oil without major problems.

I will end this rather long op-ed on this hopeful note and look forward to further productive dialogue in the future, whatever it holds.

Tam Hunt, J.D., is President of Community Renewable Solutions LLC, a company that develops medium-scale wind, solar and biomass projects. He is also a Lecturer in climate change law and policy at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at UC Santa Barbara.

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