We're not running out of resources. That's the good news. As Bjorn Lomborg has detailed in his sensational book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist," the "energy crisis" is largely a fantasy.
The mistaken impression that world energy supplies are dwindling comes from the industry's unfortunate habit of calculating "reserves" as fuels available only at today's prices. In those terms we only have 20-30 years left. When we consider total world resources, however, the abundance is stunning. There's enough coal to last us 1,500 years. There's natural gas for at least 60 years with more being discovered all the time. World oil supplies are good for 100 years and when you add shale oil, which is almost ubiquitous, there's enough fossil fuels to last an incredible 5,000 years!
That's the good news. The bad news is that while world resources are almost unlimited, the United States is slowly running out of one resource -- readily accessible oil. Our production peaked in 1970 at 3.6 billion barrels per year and steadily declined to 3.2 bby in 2001. Our oil reserves also peaked in 1970 at 39 billion barrels and now stand at 22 billion barrels. Technology marches ever onward and we keep making new discoveries. Every year we extract more and more oil out of older oil fields. But every year it comes to less and less.
Meanwhile, our consumption keeps rising. In 1970 we consumed 5.4 bby. Last year it was 7.1 bby. President Nixon became alarmed in 1973 when imports jumped from 29 percent to 36 percent, just before OPEC lowered the boom. In 2001, we imported 59.2 percent of our oil and the figure rises every year.
Thus we find ourselves in somewhat the same position as England just before the outbreak of World War II. Politically we stand astride the globe, yet we remain crucially dependent on resources outside our borders. One day there may be peace in the Middle East and energy security won't matter much, but right now we contend with one hand tied behind our back.
Our main use of oil is in transportation. Trying to conserve our way out is a fool's errand. The more we mandate fuel economy for cars, the more people drive. Autos get almost double the mileage they did 20 years ago yet gasoline consumption marches ever upward.
The initiative to develop a hydrogen-powered car, undertaken recently by the Bush Administration, makes sense. Hydrogen is truly an "alternative fuel." Used in fuel cells, it could replace oil consumption one-to-one. BMW, Chrysler, and Toyota all have experimental models. With a critical mass, an infrastructure could develop.
There's only one problem. Hydrogen is not a "natural resource." There's no free hydrogen sitting around waiting to be mined. It's all tied up in chemical compounds. Freeing this hydrogen will require energy -- more energy than comes out the other end. Like electricity, hydrogen is not an energy resource but a carrier of energy generated from other sources.
What other resources? There are two possibilities. Hydrogen can be "reformed" from natural gas. But this will mean emitting more greenhouse gases and shifting our dependence from one fossil fuel to another. Alternately, hydrogen can be generated by splitting the water molecule (H2O) with an electric current. That means producing electricity.
Making a serious dent in our oil dependency would mean hooking large portions of the transportation sector to the electrical grid by producing hydrogen. Where would we get the new electricity? Burning more coal and gas would mean more greenhouse gases. All the good hydroelectric sites are already gone. There's really only one sensible alternative -- nuclear power.
The power of the atom is something that Americans haven't really begun to appreciate. It lies in Einstein's formula, E = mc2. When matter is transformed directly into energy, as it is in a nuclear plant, the amount of fuel consumed is multiplied by the speed of light squared -- one sextillion (1 x 1021). A handful of uranium holds more energy than a 100-car freight train of coal.
The expansion of nuclear power now hinges on the Bush administration's efforts to establish a nuclear waste repository in Nevada. If it succeeds, we may be able to reduce our critical oil vulnerability. The doorway to energy autonomy lies on Yucca Mountain.