The President seems to be making a habit of trailing around after environmentalists in his State of the Union speech. Four years ago it was hydrogen and the “Freedom Car.” Last year we were “addicted to oil.” This year it’s gasohol and the hope that we can farm our way to energy utopia.
None of this ever gets us anywhere. When the President mentioned the hydrogen car four years ago, environmentalists roundly denounced him. “The FreedomCAR is really about Bush’s freedom to do nothing about cars today,” complained Ashok Gupta, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “President Bush is merely playing a shell game,” echoed Patricia Monahan, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The complaint then was that the President should be raising CAFE standards instead. In truth, environmentalists had gotten a little tired of hydrogen and were ready to move on to something else. Electric hybrids were looking more attractive.
This year President Bush has chosen to promote ethanol-from-corn — usually blended to some form of “gasohol” — just at the point when a consensus is emerging that it isn’t a very good idea. In the past six months, articles in four major magazines — all of them quite liberal — have called the whole ethanol effort into question:
* In September, New Scientist, a left-leaning British magazine, ran a story entitled “Fuels Gold,” which declared, “Biofuels will trash rainforests, suck water reserves dry, kill off species and, worst of all, barely slow down global warming.”
* In October, Consumer Reports ran a cover story, “The Ethanol Myth” that panned several ethanol-burning cars and said, “government support for flexible-fuel vehicles, which can run on E[thanol]85, is indirectly causing more gasoline consumption rather than less.”
* In November, Harvard Magazine ran a story, “The Ethanol Illusion,” which concluded, “Senator John McCain was not totally out of school when he summed up the corn/ethanol energy initiative launched by the United States in 2003 as ‘highway robbery perpetrated on the American public by Congress.'”
* And finally, in the latest issue of Scientific American, New York Times science writer Matthew Wald wrote a devastating critique which ended: “[R]relying on ethanol from corn is an unsustainable strategy: agriculture will never be able to supply nearly enough crop, converting it does not combat global warming, and socially it can be seen as taking food off people’s plates.”
SO WHY IS BUSH stepping in with support now? I don’t pretend to know the answer, but it’s time to have a little realism about energy. Environmentalists specialize in this kind of will-o-the-wisp approach, chasing after this and that ephemera until they get tired and go on to something else. But there is purpose in their folly. They don’t want solutions anyway. At heart, they’re hoping the whole modern world will go away and leave them alone.
It’s no good for a President to start thinking this way, however. So here’s a little energy primer:
We’re never going to achieve “energy independence.” It was folly when President Nixon proposed it 35 years ago, when we were importing one-third of our oil. Today we import two-thirds and the trend is all downhill. American domestic oil production peaked in 1970 (that was “Hubbert’s Peak”) and has gone steadily downward ever since. Meanwhile consumption has gone steadily upward. Short of a major depression, none of this is going to change.
We’re also running short of natural gas. Domestic production has leveled off since 2000 and prices have quintupled — a bigger run-up than oil has ever experienced. The big mistake was using natural gas to generate electricity after 1990. Environmentalists came up with this because they didn’t want to build coal plants and they certainly didn’t want to turn to the other form of energy that is so horrifying that I won’t even mention it until the end of this article. Quick as that, we’re now importing 15 percent of our gas from Canada. There is plenty of gas in the world but it’s mostly in Russia and the Middle East. Importing it will mean building huge liquid natural gas terminals — but don’t even count on that. Because liquefying and un-liquefying is so expensive, it drives up the price to Americans so that we’re really having trouble competing against Europe and China, which can be serviced by pipeline. Much of our LNG capacity is now sitting idle because we can’t afford to buy gas on the world market.
All these problems mean falling back on coal. In 1976 we burned 500 million tons of coal a year. Today we burn more than a billion. There are 90 more coal plants being built right now. The Department of Energy points out that — because of various loopholes in the law — 80 percent of these plants still use the same old-fashioned dirty technology. More than 60 percent of coal plants don’t even scrub sulfur, even though the technology has been around since the 1970s. Yet environmentalists continue to prattle about “clean coal” and make plans to “sequester” the carbon, even though it would take an underground geological reservoir the size of some of the biggest oil fields ever found to service each plant. Environmentalists only entertain this idea because they don’t want to talk about the other kind of energy I’ll mention in a minute.
SO WHAT CAN WE possibly do? Even the most market-oriented groups such as the American Enterprise Institute are beginning to acknowledge that some kind of carbon tax is going to be necessary. The only debate is whether it should be a tax or a cap-and-trade market system. (Oddly, AEI favors the tax.)
A carbon tax would truly drive Americans toward conserving gasoline. Everybody agrees it’s wasteful to be splurging on SUVs and Hummers, but people will do it as long as gas is $2 a gallon. The real danger is that we’re going to start running up against world supply limits, particularly if China and India go car-happy. As long as we’ve got the carbon excuse, why not start easing into a situation of scarcity with some kind of carbon levy?
And then of course there’s that other kind of power that we’ll finally name — “nuclear.” The truth is, the Bush administration is doing an excellent job of promoting a nuclear revival. The 2005 Energy Act offers a 1.8-cents-per-kilowatt tax credit for the first 6,000 megawatts of nuclear power constructed in the next few years. Companies are already lining up at the gate. We’ll probably see serious new proposals this year. The 1.8-cents credit is the same now being given to windmills — which is why you see these practically useless monstrosities cropping up on every hilltop. At least the money for nuclear will be well spent.
And once we have a revived nuclear sector in place, substitutes for oil do become possible. Electric hybrids seem workable — it’s just that you need a lot more electricity to run them. Hydrogen also has some possibilities — you just need some way of generating it. Hydrogen isn’t sitting around waiting to be harvested. It has to be manufactured — with electricity.
What we really need is for the words “nuclear power” to become a subject fit for polite conversation. As it is, somebody just shouts “Chernobyl” or “Three Mile Island” and everyone flees the room.
I’m just finishing the last draft of a book designed to do just that. It’s called Terrestrial Energy: How a Nuclear-Solar Alliance Can Rescue the Planet. If all goes well, it will be out next winter — just in time for President Bush to pronounce the words “nuclear power” in his last State of the Union Message.