A Few Decades Here, a Few Decades There…

In the “no shit” department:

Americans, a recent news article notes, are resentful about the hundreds of billions of dollars they’re sending to the Middle East to pay for oil. Money the oil sheiks use to build outrageous tourist attractions and the world’s tallest buildings and art museums filled with Western treasures.

Opening soon!

Opening soon!

And though the United States is making noise about ending its dependency on oil (foreign or domestic, it’s all gonna run out someday), we look forward to several more decades, at least, of footing the bill for a lot of those glitzy new projects in Abu Dhabi and Qatar and Dubai.

Folks, it didn’t have to be this way.

Continuing gulf between possibilities and realities

Continuing gulf between possibilities and "realities"

Some of you might remember the first oil crisis. The long lines at the pumps. The alternating days when you could buy gas, if there was gas to be bought. The colorful words impressionable youngsters like me learned as we heard adults cursing the rising prices. (Just imagine the vocabulary of today’s youth!) The realization that guys in Saudia Arabia and nearby nations were now controlling our fate. Who was the 1974 Time Magazine Man of the Year? King Faisal. Yeah, most people said “Who?” then too. But I remembered seeing his pic, and knowing he was tied to oil, and I’ve never forgotten it.

(I also remember that after seeing that, I was in a meeting with a guidance counselor and some other students. When she asked who we thought one of the most important people of the day was, I annoyed my fellow students by saying, “I think it’s King Faisal.” A brown-nosing SOB then and now…)

As all that unfolded in 1973, and again toward the end of the decade, some people saw a solution. Conservation. Increased energy efficiency. New sources of energy. One of the gurus of that movement was Amory Lovins. I knew his name at the time, though I was too busy getting stoned to actually read him. But I vaguely knew his message. And I was surprised to find that he’s still out there, preaching just about the same message.

In 2004, Lovins released a new book called Winning the Oil Endgame. And what’s the magic bullet for our woes? Pretty much the same it was more than 30 years ago: Conservation, increased efficiency, new energy sources. Is anyone listening any better this time?

Of course, one problem in the ‘70s was that the oil industry and lots of public officials said, “Well, hey now, that alternative energy stuff and all those other ideas are kinda catchy, but they won’t happen for decades. So what we have to do is drill for more oil. Do what we’re doing now. And, uh, putting on a sweater in winter is OK too.”

I hoped  that kind of thinking would have changed after September 11. After our dependency on foreign energy had only increased since the 1970s. After we had made it easier for the car companies to get around CAFE requirements by letting them call SUVs trucks and not passenger vehicles. After we had kept research and subsidies for solar and wind and other alternative sources to a minimum. Some people even began to say the time had come for a Manhattan Project for energy.

But no. We had two oil men running the country, oil execs helping to set policy, and more concern about keeping corn growers happy than finding truly environmentally friendly alternative sources. And we had the same old attitudes. I fumed this summer when I read a column by Charles Krauthammer, America’s most pompous, wrong-headed columnist (quite a claim given his competition, I know). Here’s the really infuriating part:

“The green fuels the Democrats insist we should be investing in are as yet uneconomical, speculative technologies, still far more expensive than extracted oil and natural gas. We could be decades away.”

Well, if we had started working on those green fuels 30 years ago, we might have them now, wouldn’t we, Charlie? And if we put off developing them now because they’re decades away, guess what: 30 years from now we still won’t have them, they’ll still be decades away, and some friends of Big Oil will still think “Drill, baby, drill!” is the solution for $8-a-gallon gasoline! Am I the only person who sees lunacy at work here?

Actually, there are some folks who see the value of Lovins’s approach. Very concerned folks. They’re the ones at the Pentagon who partially paid for Winning the Oil Endgame. They know how the reliance on fuels largely controlled by countries who are or could be hostile to us is not such a good thing. They see how expensive it is to move soldiers and supplies around the world when the cost of fuel rises and is beyond your control. They get that alternative energy and conservation and better efficiency are security issues and economic issues that could spell doom for this country. The also get Lovins’s point  that those energy actions present incredible new opportunities for US businesses.

President Bush has talked about hydrogen and other alternative energies, but the financial commitment has not matched the rhetoric. Maybe the next president will finally start that new Manhattan Project, though the current financial crisis and the still-strong influence of Big Oil makes it unlikely. It’s much easier to just keep the status quo, move slowly, and fuel that resentment we feel when Dubai gets another new indoor skiing mountain.

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~ by mburgan on October 6, 2008.

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