Obama’s energy speech: time to walk the walk by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

President Obama this week laid out a plan to cut dependence on foreign oil by 2025. Forty years ago, Richard Nixon also promised to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. At the time about 34 percent of our oil was imported. A decade later it was 45 percent, and Jimmy Carter was making the same promise. Under George W. Bush, it hit 60 percent. Now the percentage oil imported hovers around 66 percent. The numbers are very discouraging.

If oil imports went down last year, we can thank the Great Recession. Estimates point to a big jump again this year.

We seem to be stuck in reverse. The President says he wants to increase domestic oil production, but the United States only has two percent of the world’s oil reserves. He’d also create more incentives for natural gas, biofuels, and increased conservation.

To quote that great energy expert Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all over again…and again….and again. Meanwhile, we’re now paying up to $3.79 a gallon for gas and that will likely go up this summer. As the President acknowledged, when prices are high, we panic; when they go down, we hit the snooze button. But significant action is long overdue.

We have to fight inertia and distrust. There’s heightened anxiety about offshore drilling in the wake of the BP oil spill. Japan’s tsunami-prompted nuclear reactor breakdowns have probably slowed what was a new awakening of the potential for nuclear. Coal advocates promote its relative safety, though even the new iteration – “clean coal” – doesn’t inspire confidence .

Wind, solar and other alternatives produce only three percent of our energy, and there’s no sustained plan to support expansion; some years there are tax credits; some years there are not. Only oil industry subsidies have staying power. In the 1980’s we led the world in clean energy. Today the United States has slipped to third in the production of solar and wind, behind China and Germany.

The President called for a long-term energy policy. Congressman Ed Markey and Senator John Kerry have both tried to get comprehensive plans through their respecctive branches. But, in today’s political environment, it will be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to get a truly comprehensive energy plan through Congress. There are too many energy constituencies to get a majority vote on a comprehensive bill. Why can’t our legislators break off one piece at a time and chip away at the problem?

One possibility is to do more with natural gas, which has some bipartisan support in Congress. We have reserves that are equivalent to 700 billion barrels of oil. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was pushing a bill that would provide a tax credit to new vehicles using natural gas. (A similar benefit is already on the books for trash trucks in Southern California.) Or we could start by requiring that all eight million 18-wheelers on the road use that clean and domestically available fuel. Others want to require that all future federal vehicles use domestic fuel as a resource. The President is directing that increased numbers of vehicles in the federal fleet use alternative fuels by a set date.

Why can’t enterprising banks encourage conservation by offering lower rates for mortgage loans on houses that are built with green technology? Why can’t we move more of our own vehicles by bio-fuels as Brazil does? (70 percent of our oil consumption goes for transportation, the second largest chunk out of the household budget.) Other one-off approaches might get through Congress.

The point is: it’s time to do something. Something modest but meaningful. Something that acts on the problem, rather than simply giving another speech about it.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

4 Responses to Obama’s energy speech: time to walk the walk by Marjorie Arons-Barron

  1. Joe S says:

    There are very few things that have actually been done in the past two years toward this goal. Yes, we had the “cash-for-clunkers” program and that may have made some dent in gasoline consumption, but its primary effect was to help turn around the automobile industry. And we have some government credits for energy efficiency in our buildings that continue today. More solar installations are being created and wind farms are sprouting up, but together they represent a small contribution to the effort.

    If we could clearly state that our continuing dependence on oil is a economic problem (rather than an environmental problem, which it is) we may develop wider support for alternatives. Since our continual consumption of foreign oil is a significant portion of our trade imbalance, it represents a large drain on wealth from our economy.

    So where do we go from here? Natural gas is quite plentiful and fairly clean, so that should be one path we should take more aggressively, but at the same time remembering that any increased usage may drive up the price based on demand for it. Despite the risks and associated mitigation costs, nuclear should be seriously considered for expansion. What if we were able to make use of decommissioned military assets for fuel, thereby lessening the creation of additional radioactive material? And where solar is so clean and abundant, science should be focused on improving the efficiency of its capture, rather than just increasing its distribution across our areas. That should be a more productive path to take than any improvement in wind capture. Solar may be combined with fuel cells to supply the hydrogen necessary for that clean technology.

    Where the current gasoline prices are driving the current discussion, maybe increasing the federal gasoline tax would provide further incentive to solve these problems and not just reduce our dependency on foreign oil, but eliminate it.

  2. PaulM says:

    Jimmy Carter put on the sweater and talked to Americans in, what, 1978? The good thing is that President Obama gets it on energy and accepts the reality of science for shaping public policy. Give him a Congress that will make the right stuff happen. 2012 is coming.

  3. Corey Sciuto says:

    We need to be careful with the talk of alternative energy as well. Without huge changes in battery technology, wind and solar will never replace 24/7 fossil fuel power. Biofuels are often quite water intensive (and grown with electricity and hydrocarbons). Hydrofracting for natural gas is being fought as a potential environmental catastrophe in a few states already.

    Yet, with no help from our very short-sighted short electoral cycles, people are far more interested in making feel-good decisions instead of hard decisions. Cloth shopping bags and a Ford Explorer 10 miles from town. Some of the changes that will have to happen are unthinkable. Conversation with my sister today:

    “Corey, why do airlines have so many maintanence problems now?”
    “Because they’re strapped for cash – fuel prices. People are going to have to start flying less.”
    “But…how will they go on vacation when they need to relax!?”

    You’d think coast-to-coast air travel wasn’t something that we’ve only had for a few generations. How entitled and spoiled we are!

    “Well, if things are so bad, why don’t we toll more roads to get people to drive less?”
    “You be the politician that proposes that one.”

    You tell America we’re in trouble here and things, painful things, need to change NOW. Won’t happen until it’s a total crisis.

  4. Joe S says:

    Today GE announced the intent to build the largest US solar panel factory to produce panels which are on the leading edge of overall efficiency – at 13%! Each additional 1% of efficeincy represents an effective cost reduction of about 10%, so small improvement numbers do matter. Can UML nano-tech get another few percent?