Fueling America's Future

Fueling America's Future

By Carl M. Cannon & Brandon Ott - May 20, 2013

Energy. The term has its roots in a word used by Aristotle, one a modern English speaker might recognize: “enérgeia.” Roughly translated from ancient Greek it means “at work.”

And although our modern understanding of energy wasn’t realized until a century ago, courtesy of Albert Einstein, “at work” is an appropriate way to think about energy in the 21st century: Without it, nothing in our modern world would function.

That knowledge has seeped into the consciousness of everyday Americans at an accelerating rate. Once an esoteric topic confined to trading floors, boardrooms, distant oil fields, and university symposiums, energy news now splashes across our morning papers and favorite websites on a daily basis.

The Keystone XL Pipeline is a political football in the Midwest, hydraulic fracturing is the latest battleground between environmentalists and energy producers, cars of the future are now cars of the present, voters are plumbed for their opinions on ethanol, off-shore oil drilling, solar and wind power -- and climate change.

Why not? A flick of a switch, a check of Facebook, a late-night trip to the kitchen -- everything requires energy. That energy comes from sources around the country and the world at considerable cost, effort and risk.

Americans buy much of our oil from friendly Canada and Mexico, but less-simpatico Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Nigeria send us nearly as much. Natural gas, after decades of public and private R&D, is finally providing vast quantities of cheaper and cleaner domestic energy, as well as many thousands of well-paying jobs and millions in tax revenue.

The importance of coal, long a symbol of American manufacturing and grit, is declining, but it is still responsible for 37 percent of the electrical generation in this country – and is surging in China.

Nuclear energy, once the great hope of energy experts and global-warming experts, was been sidelined by sensational disasters -- Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima -- to the point of stagnation. Meanwhile, solar and wind energy are posting new and better gains each year, although they still are far from being an adequate replacements for fossil fuels. When you add biomass to the mix, the picture that emerges is that renewables are generating about 12 percent of America’s energy needs.

Conservation and energy-saving technological advances are part of the energy mosaic, too, albeit with a one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back aspect to them: The more energy Americans save, the more we also use.

This week, RealClearPolitics is engaged in a special report on the issues facing the country regarding energy. As part of that focus, RCP is hosting a noon lunch Tuesday at Union Station in Washington, D.C., where a dozen industry and environmental experts will offer a panoramic overview of the future of energy.

Black Gold and Texas Tea

Come listen to the story about a man named Jed
Poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed
Then one day he was shootin’ at some food
Up from the ground came a bubblin’ crude

Oil, that is

Black gold

Texas tea

Well, the first thing you know ol Jed's a millionaire . . .

That kind of oil has long since been burned up in Ford Mustangs and Chevy pickups, and it now comes from all over the world, not just the Lone Star State.

But the thing is, it’s still coming, and that’s a huge part of the story. Economists, environmentalists, and even some oil exploration geologists had predicted that the world’s supply of crude would be nearly gone by now. Instead, the technology and finding and drilling for fossil fuels has opened fields deep underground (and under the sea) that could previously only be imagined.

Today the problem isn’t extracting crude oil as much as making sure it flows where it’s supposed to -- i.e., into pipes or tankers on its way to refineries instead of, say, into the Gulf of Mexico.

No other energy product is as visible as oil. Whether imported from the Middle East or produced here in the U.S., oil floods our energy mind. From New York to Alaska, Texas to North Dakota, jobs and barrels and money are flowing. Production is expanding at an incredible rate; since 2008, it has jumped nearly 50 percent, is expected to reach 7.4 million barrels per day in 2013. That’s a 21-year high, and nearly a million more barrels a day than 2012.

Studies show that by 2020, the U.S. will be the world’s leading energy producer, even outpacing energy juggernaut Saudi Arabia. A resurgent Gulf of Mexico will regain its lost glory in the next few years following the BP disaster. Canada is on a pace to produce an additional 1.3 million barrels a day by 2018. “Energy independence,” long the pipe dream of politicians, actually seems attainable.

The looming question remains: at what cost to our environment?

The Friction Over Fission

What if Americans could, without kicking the fossil fuel habit that makes our cars run, address the problems of air pollution, lower our huge international trade imbalance, reverse the flow of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere -- the ones blamed for global warming -- and protect threatened coastal ecosystems from the Louisiana bayou to the Arctic wilderness?

Well, some people think you can, if only the United States would build more nuclear power plants. In 2008, John McCain vowed to do just that; Barack Obama, despite cultural antipathy for nukes among his liberal base, reluctantly joined in the call. Then came Fukushima.

Today, jetsam and flotsam from the Japanese tsunami is washing up on West Coast beaches -- and nuclear power cannot compete with natural gas on price point.

Going Nuclear: Some 436 nuclear energy plants are currently operating in the world, with more than five dozen in some degree of planning and construction. These plants account for only 13.5 percent of the world’s electricity. In the United States, the picture is slightly better: 104 power plants, supplying about 19 percent of the nation’s electrical power (and the lion’s share of emission-free electricity).

And though four new domestic nuclear reactors have been licensed in the last five years, the political and economic environment is still daunting. The sobering fact is that no new plant has been built in the U.S. since 1977.

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Carl M. Cannon & Brandon Ott

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