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Saturday, April 2, 2011

America’s Energy Security: President Obama’s Plan

Summary.  Global warming due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions remains a serious, unsolved problem facing the world.  Many major emitters, including the United States, remain without effective plans to reduce their emissions. 

As the Libyan oil crisis continues to contribute to a sudden spike in crude oil futures prices, leading to a sudden increase in gasoline prices in the U. S., President Obama delivered a speech on America’s Energy Security on March 30, 2011.  Emphasizing measures to modulate gasoline prices, he set forth goals of reducing foreign oil imports and promoting alternative energy sources.  The speech failed to seize the moment, however, to teach the American public about the critical need for curbing use of all fossil fuels and developing alternatives.  The U. S. still needs a comprehensive energy policy for the future.  We must hope that this Administration can remedy this failing.

Introduction.  According to T. Boone Pickens, the “Oracle of Oil”, the U. S. is the only country without a national energy plan (presentation at Yale U., 03/24/11).  The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends that global warming from the start of the industrial revolution be limited to 3.6 deg F.  This principle is incorporated into the Cancun conference agreement of November 2011. Drastic reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases need to be implemented right away.  Climate scientists show that even if no new facilities using fossil fuels were built starting now, the global average temperature would continue rising before leveling off because of existing fuel-burning facilities.

European and U. S. Regional Energy Plans.  The European Union recently issued its Energy Roadmap for 2050with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from the levels measured in 1990 by 2050.  In the U. S., by contrast, the absence of a national energy policy has led in recent years to three regional programs, the Western Climate Initiative, the Midwest Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord, and the northeast and mid-Atlantic Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.  Although the three plans differ in the details of their goals and coverage, all use a cap-and-trade mechanism to reduce emissions. This patchwork of plans begs for a single nation-wide plan. 

President Obama’s energy plan, presented in his speech and Fact Sheet: America’s Energy Security of March 30, 2011, proposes to cut imports of oil into the U. S. by one-third by 2025. This goal appears to be a response to the Libyan revolution-induced oil crisis, which has led to increased gasoline prices.  Since imports make up more than half of total U. S. oil use, this reduction corresponds to only about 16% of overall usage by 2025.  This is to be achieved by a combination of increasing domestic and international oil production, a switch to natural gas and biofuels from petroleum, and increased production of cars and trucks with higher fuel economy.  The plan also calls for expanded production of electric vehicles.  It promotes a Clean Energy Standard by which 80% of electricity generation in the U. S. will be from sources that avoid greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, including “clean coal”.  Overall, this plan presents many useful and worthy objectives to improve the U. S.’s energy situation.

The President’s plan, however, falls short in many respects.  Rather than formulating a single unified distinct goal such as the E.U.’s Roadmap, or any of the regional American accords, the President’s approach resembles more a shopping list of things “to-do”. The emphasis is on retaining or even expanding petroleum or natural gas for vehicle fuel, and on biofuels.  The global warming threat, however, requires weaning the country from all fossil fuels right away.  Similar emphasis was placed on domestic natural gas, which should not be a long-term solution.  Practically no mention was made of eliminating coal, the fuel producing the most CO2 emissions compared to the useful energy obtained, from electric power.  The notion of “clean coal”, mentioned only in passing, remains to be vindicated as a successful method capable of application at the large scale required.  It is imperative to move away from coal.   Furthermore, there is no incentive, such as cap-and-trade, a carbon tax, or other policy, to motivate relinquishing conventional energy sources and adoption of alternative energy sources.

Conclusion.  Warmgloblog believes the President missed an important opportunity on March 30 to teach and lead the nation in developing a coherent energy policy for the future.  In November, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu spoke of the present era, with respect to developing renewable energy sources, as a new “Sputnik moment”. It is hoped that future actions can remedy the present patchwork approach, leading to a comprehensive, funded plan to move the U.S. to a renewable energy economy.

© 2011 Henry Auer

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