Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rational Politics Chapter 7: Energy

If you get nothing else from this post, please understand that energy is not a political issue. It has been co-opted by the political parties to push specific narratives and it has been kicked around by non-profits and conglomerates alike looking for leverage. But the energy debate that we the people see now in the media, is largely the creation of the political branding machine.

The central issue in the energy debate is not left versus right, business versus the environment, or God versus science; it is rather the notion of progress versus procrastination. We stumbled, very recently, onto a fossil fuel powered lifestyle. Less than the age of our rather young republic, the fossil fuel era has a shelf life. Given the acceptance of its side-effects, the coal era could last for many hundreds of years. Oil is another story, and most of the petroleum industry thinks that story will have run its course before our republic doubles its current age. Our great-grandchildren will be dealing with oil shortages and the decline of every industry still attached to the substance known as black gold.

So here we sit, as a nation, with no clear path for moving forward. We have debated alternative energy, sustainable energy, renewable energy, and Star Trek energy for literally decades. Excluding geothermal, all energy sources are derived from the Sun. A nation driven by the efficiency of its business enterprise chooses to power said enterprise in the most inefficient manner; dig up substances that captured solar energy millions of years ago, rather than capturing the solar energy of its direct effects (wind energy) on the surface. On this path as well, we have empowered the worst despots in history through the investment of oil purchases.

Thomas Friedman calls them petrodictators, and he produced a graph in his book "Hot, Flat, and Crowded", that demonstrated a striking pattern. As the world price of oil moved up, the shenanigans in places like Iran, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, and Venezuela accelerated. Idiots like Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gained power through oil. The Saudi oil barons as well, are able to transfer massive sums to individuals running extremist madrassas; schools that exist in the vacuums of broken states like Pakistan and teach anti-Western "desert Islam". And then there are the oil spills.

There are a number of excellent reasons for we the people to push the marketplace into a sustainable energy strategy. If one chooses to ignore the science of climate change, the threat to national security, the expense and risk of intercontinental value chains, or the direct risks of pollution; there is always the reality of resource exhaustion to fall back on. So why doesn't the United States have a coherent national energy strategy? The Rational Middle can list three principal reasons:
  1. Americans have become lazy
  2. Americans don't like change
  3. Americans have become childish
Thank God that we the people didn't approach Hitler the way we look at energy. The most darkly humorous thing I hear is the idea that we would be "bankrupting our grandchildren by taking on this challenge!!" So we choose to stick our heads in the oil-soaked sand and ignore the problem. When our grandchildren are forced to pay for a new energy model, at prices adjusted for a century of inflation and a desperation mark-up, I am sure they will thank us. Pro-business types that have never calculated the present-value of a project, don't understand national debt and currency strategies, and fail to see the necessity of infrastructure investment, make me somewhat nauseous.

We the people hate change. Building a new energy grid in support of solar and wind generation would take a large and lengthy tax schedule; monies that would immediately find their way into the hands of millions of independent contractors, large construction firms, and every auxiliary or service business in the nation. Wildcatters would quickly adapt to building solar stations and wind farms, and the entire process would spawn a new economy. But change makes us cry, and we the people are comfortable with our coal-fired homes. Besides, all of those miners in coal country would lose their jobs.

Which brings me to childish. The childish element in all of this is the entire environmental movement. Not for trying desperately to warn the world of species loss and deforestation. Not for bringing the United States silly things like clean water and clean air (it does amuse me when conservatives laugh about Montezuma's revenge on their Mexican vacation and then complain about the U.S. nanny state and its obtrusive regulations). I accuse the environmental movement of denying these problems their human face. I accuse the environmental movement of pushing renewable energy under the auspices of a panacea; free energy for all.

Is it a wonder that voters in energy producing states, and officers in energy producing companies, look suspiciously at environmentalists? Major firms have spent trillions of dollars over the last century plus building our grid; and they have current capital investments in the billions. People have a compelling argument when they fight for a way of life in Appalachia or the Gulf Coast. Sometimes I wonder whether the manner of engagement we Americans have adopted is not more relevant than the individual problems we are engaging on. By way of example, if we the people had, 40 years ago, began an aggressive plan to find equally impactful economic uses for the tobacco fields and processing firms of the Carolinas, would not our end results have been better?

If we the people want to step up to the challenge of energy, then we need the engagement of business, individuals, and the energy providers. A plan must provide for market-based and incremental movement into new capital investment. A plan must be detached from the competing individual interests, and developed first and foremost as a national initiative for clean energy. It was liberal interests that delayed the wind farm recently approved for the coast of Massachusetts. Clean energy and transportation are goals sufficient in and for themselves; they don't need linkage to disparate problems for their justification.

Ours is a nation with a history of taking on the biggest challenges and the most impossible dreams. Building a new model for energy and transportation isn't exactly going to the Moon. Lets get it done!

The Rational Middle is listening...


  1. It may come as a surprise, but as much as I can understand what you say here, I can't find a single thing to disagree with.

    Your three observations for why the United States doesn't have a coherent national energy strategy are about as spot on as possible. Actually, I think those three things could cover a wide range of what ails America.

    Good post.

  2. Very reasoned Michael, and accurately assessed as well. Unfortunately, no matter how rational a plan might be, it will ultimately be thwarted by a political apparatus that will make sure the "petro-dictators" continue their hegemony over energy policy, benefiting not only the profits of these modern oil barons, but ensuring that war profiteering will continue in perpetuity as we continue to destabilize the middle east for western capitalist control over their precious finite resource: OIL.

    Let us not forget about the role that the coal industry plays as well. Environmental and human catastrophes aside, coal provides 60% of the world's electricity. I don't think they're going to go away without a fight -- or at least a propaganda campaign; which they have already begun. Have you seen the ads for "clean coal"?

    Perhaps the only chance for clean energy is if the "petro-dictators" control the production, oversight and eventual profits of wind and solar energy and the construction of a new, more efficient grid.

  3. That last point Todd, would be central to my argument. A national energy plan would create positive market pressures through existing suppliers; cap and trade tries this, but it largely ignores current capital investment. I don't believe there are many CEO's or officers at major electrical producers (or oil companies), that think climate change is a hoax. These folks are mostly engineers by trade; but if you are responsible to shareholders for perhaps $10 billion in plants that still have a decade or more to go on a depreciation schedule...it is tough. The only entity that has the scale, the sheer muscle power to do this, is the consolidated power of the American people. We call that "the Government"...and the consolidated power is harnessed through taxes. At this point, Hank might be feeling less supportive (maybe). Energy/fuel taxes that lower demand and are funneled to new and existing enterprise to modify current infrastructure and build the new. No more playing around in the margins; no more whining. Americans adjust to fuel costs that jump by a dollar or more in a few weeks, all to support speculator profits. Adjusting to staged per unit tax increases on gas and kilowatt hours is well within the capability of Americans. I am talking in terms of a plan of twenty to thirty years, with a tax schedule that phases in over, perhaps, the first 10, then plateaus before regressing to the finish. In thirty years, we could see a new energy model comprises of far lower per person demand levels, and perhaps two-thirds of that demand serviced through renewables. It can and should be done...and if Southern Company and "ExxonSolar" are earning $4.00 per share then, fantastic!

  4. You're exactly right: "It can and should be done." But the systemic realities present a bleak outlook for implementing a rational plan for the future of our energy supply. The market and us taxpayers as a whole, react to the immediate situation rather than properly analyzing the system of production and profit that has put us, our economy and our environment in danger of collapse. Rationally looking at the future has never been a trademark of our political system or the corporate interests that dictate our democracy. If you believe that the pressure of the voters can enact change on the legislatures who have the power to create change, then our one-party "democracy" must be taken back by "we the people" from the hands of the corporations who manufacture our consent of this system that benefits only the few.

  5. I've got a question, and a challenge for you, Michael. I've wondered for years why we've never developed a decent nuclear grid in this nation. It seemed obvious while I was growing up listening to fellow Nevadans hurling invectives about the waste dump at Beatty (was it Beatty? Man it's been awhile) but there came a point when I realized that I'm allowed to look at issues rationally and for myself instead of following the crowd, lemming-like, down whatever primrose path is heading toward Hell today. With that realization, the Beatty debates seemed to instantly devolve into the NOBE effect. I'm going to make things sound a little more simplistic than they are, betraying my lack of hard research and revealing my challenge to you. I understand Nuclear waste is a bummer. We've been going to space for a long time and a rocket full of Nuclear garbage fired toward our nearest nuclear-powered neighbor (the Sun) wouldn't even be noticed. In fact, it would be vaporized long before ever getting there. Personally, I would prefer this method of disposal since I don't relish the thought of sticking my trash in anyone else's back yard and we don't know who might be out there or where they might be. For those that don't relish the, "shoot all our garbage to the Sun option", for whatever reason, there is another. Launch it all off the ecliptic into interstellar space. It will far surpass it's half-life many times over before ever reaching the outskirts of the nearest galaxy.
    Now, my challenge to you is to provide a convincing argument that these are not viable options. Fear doesn't cut it. "What if there is an accident?" is a cop out. What if I fall down the stairs, hit my head on a nail, and die from complications because my cell phone was temporarily out of service and I couldn't call for help? Well, by all means we should stop building houses with steps or out of wood (requiring nails) and cell phones are ineffective when truly needed so that technology was just a bad idea. Please! We could "What if" ourselves to death. The risk in the nuclear scenario could be minimized by launching from a deep-ocean platform and having clean-up crews in position just in case.
    I'm listening :-)

  6. Jon...the why we don't can be summarized by the Sierra Club, Three Mile Island, cost. Nuclear has enormous fixed costs. Why not for the future...resources; we can find enough uranium to meet our demand, but only with an investment in exploration on the order of what oil companies have spent since 1900. For the same trillions, we could have a grid (perhaps 35% solar, 25% wind, 15% natural gas, 15% nuclear, 10% all other) with far less systemic risk. Space shots present the same risks as central disposal (in terms of short term exposure); but the difficulties in cleaning up and oil spill, with a precisely known initial point,in waters with well know bottom features and surface currents, should give one pause when considering the ease of cleanup of substances with far greater toxicity.