Whither Energy?

Why the Bush Proposals are Wrong

Part One: Fossil Fuels Forever?

In the wake of the Bush pronunciamento on energy, it is time for a rational discussion of energy, to counter the politics of denial. The quasi-religious nature of Bush's statements about the "right" of Americans to use as much energy as they might wish bodes ill not only for the USA but for the entire world. There is, of course, no such right, and careful examination of the Bush proposals reveals that they can only make matters worse in the long run.

Only about one billion people live at a relatively high standard today. There are another five billion people striving to reach this standard or something close to it. The best estimate is that the world's population will increase by a further two billion in 20 or 30 years, assuming that recent successes in reducing population growth continue. A population of eight billion may turn out to be the peak. At the start of the industrial revolution, there were about a billion people on earth and virtually all energy was renewable. (The exceptions were small-scale coal mining and peat digging.) Until the start of the industrial revolution, almost all energy used by humans had come from wind and water power, human and animal muscle power, and biomass - mainly firewood. Even long after the start of the industrial revolution, renewable sources of energy continued to play an important role. Recall that grain was shipped from Australia to Europe in sailing ships until 1939, and that the horse remained an important source of motive power even in the highly mechanized German army. Had the world population not grown and the rate of energy consumption not increased, this steady-state condition could have been sustained more or less indefinitely, as it had been for thousands of years.

Since 1850, citizens in wealthier nations have each consumed steadily increasing amounts of energy. The product of rising per-capita consumption and increasing populations has increased consumption of fossil fuels to truly staggering levels. Living Americans have never known a time when they could not consume enormous quantities of non-renewable energy, and most have come to believe that this is a perfectly normal state of affairs. Many Europeans, however, can remember when private car usage was still uncommon, when air travel was quite unusual, and when most people lived in cramped apartments that required relatively little energy to heat and which were never air conditioned.

Even today, in much of the world, people remain largely dependent on sustainable energy sources, principally wood and draft animals. In places like Nepal, as improved health care dramatically reduced infant mortality, populations soared and outstripped the supply of firewood. While travel in motorized vehicles is fairly common in much of the developing world, it is almost invariably by bus - private cars remain rare in these societies. Aside from modest use of motor fuels and small amounts of kerosene for cooking and lighting, people in these nations still consume very little non-renewable energy. Their food is still produced using little fossil fuel. These societies will be much better able to cope with reduced energy supplies than North America, where the food supply depends on fossil fuels for tilling, fertilizing, pesticide manufacture, and long-distance refrigerated transport.

Even within the group of nations where the standard of living is high, there are large variations in the rate of per-capita energy consumption. This is most clearly illustrated by gasoline consumption. The USA consumes about 40% of global gasoline production but has only about 4% of the world's population. If there were eight billion people consuming gasoline at the current American rate, the world would need to produce more than ten times as much gasoline as now. No thinking person can believe that even a doubling of current production is possible.

This leaves only two ways forward: either the developed nations will have to dramatically reduce their consumption of gasoline, or the developing nations will have to forego significant increases in their own consumption. And this all assumes that production can be maintained at current levels. There, of course, is the rub. World oil production is probably about at its peak - we cannot expect any significant increase in oil production from today's levels, no matter what we do. Only the Middle East has the capacity to increase production - the rest of the world has already reached or passed peak production. The USA was the first nation to pass the peak of domestic production, about 30 years ago. The USA now imports about half of its oil. While the picture with natural gas is less clear, it seems that shortages will begin to develop in North America in the coming decade, with some other parts of the world not reaching peak production for a couple of decades.

The Bush administration did get one thing right - coal is the only real hope the USA has of increasing domestic production of fossil fuels. Even here, however, the picture is not encouraging. While the USA possess vast reserves of coal, enough to last for perhaps a thousand years at current rates of consumption, most coal is deeply buried, and its extraction consumes more energy than the coal yields when burned. The only way to use this coal is through in-situ gasification, an absolutely filthy process that actually consumes more energy than is released for productive uses, but since the coal consumed is not otherwise usable, the process can yield more usable energy than it consumes. The net of this equation is the production of extremely high amounts of CO2 per unit energy produced, along with vast amounts of pollution.

The Bush energy plan would result in huge increases in CO2 emissions by the USA. The evidence of global warming is now overwhelming. Any energy policy that denies this reality is simply building castles in the air. The rest of the world has now recognized this situation and is preparing to adapt to it; among world leaders, Bush is nearly alone in denying this reality.

Even if the Bush plan actually results in increased US fossil fuel production, the long-term result is disastrous for the USA. The faster domestic fossil fuel is extracted and consumed, the longer it will take for energy conservation to become an urgent issue, and the less energy that will be available in the future. This is one situation where you really can't have your cake and eat it too. Bush thinks Americans have an inalienable right to drive gas-guzzling road hogs. If Bush does succeed in maintaining energy prices at artificially low levels, the result can only be continued pressure for sprawling suburban development, that pattern of human habitation which is the most profligate consumer of energy ever devised. The result of all of this will be that American children will grow up into a world critically short of energy and in a nation entirely unprepared to cope with this eventuality.

J.H. Crawford
19 May 2001

Read Part Two: A Bridge to Sustainable Energy
Read Part Three: Making a Long-Term Plan

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