On Energy, We See Through a Glass Darkly But Must Forge Ahead
The more I read about America’s energy future the more confused I get. I know: I am easily confused. Give me simple problems with simple answers and I can manage. Try to teach me advanced math and you are wasting your time. But I bet even the brightest bulbs in the chandelier flicker when confronted with conflicting ideas on solving the U.S. energy crisis.
I can see that offshore drilling in the U.S. won’t make much difference in a global market. That’s a no brainer. And I can see that the world will one day run out of fossil fuels. When? Who knows? But some day. Not in my lifetime but perhaps in my grandson Adam’s – or even his elder brother Jonathan’s. Or perhaps in their children’s lifetimes. Meanwhile, oil prices can go only one way, and that’s up.
I have heard convincing arguments that the future of energy production lies in renewable resources such as wind, sunlight, wave action, geothermal energy and biofuels. But then I’ve also heard complaints that the wind turbines (photo below, right) look hideous and make a whining sound that drives some people crazy (some even claim it makes them sick). And I saw a program on TV the other night about a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico that was blamed on fertilizer from corn fields along the Mississippi River, which (according to the TV reporter) were planted to provide ethanol.
Then there’s John McCain’s declaration that “when you say wind, solar and tide, most every expert that I know says that, if you maximize that in every possible way, the contribution that that would make given the present state of technology is very small, is very small. It’s not a large contribution … The truly clean technologies don’t work.”
The Arizona senator, who is carrying the Republican banner in this year’s presidential election, does not believe in the alternative-fuel promise, despite claims to the contrary in some of his commercials. He missed eight straight votes on renewable tax credits in the past year. And a spokesman said he would have voted against the tax credits if he had shown up.
Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, proposes a massive alternative-energy program as a key strategy in lifting a staggering American economy to its feet, providing “five million new jobs,” and helping to avert catastrophic global climate change. From all accounts, Obama is a lot brighter than I. He was editor of the Harvard Law Review and is a consitutonal law professor. So I hope he is msart enough to figure out the pros and cons in the complex energy crisis.
So, how come so many members of Congress aren’t convinced? Some $500 million in investment and production tax credits for “green” fuel development are set to expire Dec. 31 and Congress seems reluctant to renew them.
Senate Republicans have blocked consideration of tax-extender plans by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. Apparently, GOP lawmakers are protesting efforts to offset the costs with other taxes. And in the House, conservative Democrats promise to block any extension that increases the national deficit.
I have to believe lawmakers who oppose the tax breaks are honest public servants with logical reasons to block development of alternative energy in America. But I can’t figure out how they can justify their objections. I believe the current plan is to help pay for the alternative energy development with a windfall tax on oil companies, which have made so many billions of dollars from the recent spike in gas prices. Is that what some lawmakers object to? And if so, why?
Big Oil continues to post record profits (an estimated $123 billion last year for the five largest companies), and the federal government doles out billions of dollars to the industry every year in the form of tax credits and direct subsidies. Estimates range from $18 billion to $30 billion a year.
Over the past year, about 90 percent of the votes that held up the extension of production tax credits to alternative fuel development were by Republicans. This follows a tradition set by President Ronald Reagan, who gutted President Jimmy Carter’s multibillion-dollar research and development budget for renewables, and ended the tax credits for wind and solar. America’s conservatives – led by their intellectuals – have relentlessly opposed government programs to promote renewable sources of energy.
But why? Surely America must press on in an attempt to find alternatives to oil despite the objections raised to various sources of renewable energy – that it takes at least as much fossil-fuel energy to turn corn into ethanol as it would to create electricity from scratch, for example, or that the windmills look ugly and sound horrible, or that solar panels are too expensive, or whatever.
I admit the arguments on both sides can be confusing, but one thing is crystal clear to me: America cannot continue to rely on a dwindling and increasingly expensive global supply of oil. Whatever the answers to the energy problem might be, the nation’s leaders have no choice but to find them.