EM Reprint: Independence Ain’t Dependence

1 12 2009

(Originally published August 9, 2008)

It’s time for the “silly season” in US politics, which means this year the candidates are spewing sound bytes and similar bumper sticker-ese in hopes of swaying the voters. An example of this is direct from a recent bumper sticker sighting around town: “Drill here, drill now, pay less.” Sure, maybe in 10 years, assuming that the oil/gas market mirrors current conditions, rather than being a last-ditch effort to placate “demand” with “supply”. This is apparently a new Republican meme. On the “eco” side of things, which tends to skew left, a common refrain is “[whatever] will save the planet.” Cut/paste/replace with any of the following: CFL bulbs, “green” grocery bags, wind power, solar power, geothermal power, SIGG™ water bottles, etc etc ad infinitum. I don’t disagree with the assertions that many (and more) of these things can be good decisions, and yield positive benefits, but “save the planet”? What is this, Marvel Comics?

Apparently so, because this drama requires heroes and villains. Trouble is, “hero” and “villain” is an interchangeable term, depending on your point of view.

In this Silly Season, a frequent complaint/challenge is to “achieve energy independence.” Usually independence from “foreign oil”, which is a euphemism for Iran and Saudi Arabia. My concern with such talk lies with the fact that the USA does not currently contain enough of any single energy source to satisfy current demand, and with the exception of renewable energy, we’d be trading one finite resource for another. Ah, but it would be our finite resource.

As things stand today, we have little choice but to be interdependent in the energy sector. I’m not exactly sure why this is such a one-note political issue, other than other countries apparently having more oil reserves than we do.

As is often the case, if I’m thinking it, someone else is talking about it, such as a recent interview in Reason Online with Robert Bryce, who says, among other things:

It isn’t like energy is the only vital thing we aren’t “independent” in. I have a chart in the book which shows, using data from the U.S. Geologic Survey, some mineral commodities. We import 100 percent of more than a dozen — fluorspar, yttrium, strontium, vanadium, arsenic among others. These are industrial commodities we need to power our economy—yttrium in televisions, microwaves, ceramics; strontium for nuclear fuel; manganese in steel and iron. These are things we have to have, and we import 100 percent of them.

I would have thought that nuclear power would be something we could churn out fairly consistently in the USA, but drat, foiled again:

The only energy source with zero carbon emissions in electric power is nuclear. And that’s another example of interdependence. We import 83 percent of our uranium. There are other countries like Kazakhstan with much larger reserves of uranium than the U.S. which can mine it more cheaply.

I cannot vouch for the veracity of the above claim that nuclear power is the only zero carbon emissions energy solution, but will cheekily remark that carbon emissions are the least of anyone’s worries where nuclear power is concerned.

If we’re going to deal in pithy remarks and sound bytes during the Silly Season, here’s my contribution: Gather the data. People will pull you in several different directions if allowed, and without the facts (data), it’s easy to get suckered in by a sales pitch that sounded plausible and just put money in someone else’s pocket.

I’ll flog this contention once more: I foresee the future of energy production/consumption as being a market where energy is produced where it is consumed. Refer to any solar calculator for the perfect model of this theory. This eliminates the distributed model of energy production, BUT it does not eliminate distributed markets altogether. I am cognizant that energy is expended in the process of creating, distributing, selling, and transporting the calculators. This energy expense may not be “green” or renewable. It may continue our dependence on “foreign” sources of energy. As the adoption of the new energy practice widens, this energy expense can be lessened or eliminated outright.

Swapping out a dependence on one finite resource, foreign or domestic, does not propel us into this possible future.

I do believe that it is entirely possible to become “energy independent” to the extent of how the energy is produced and consumed. We generally do not speak in terms of “dependence on foreign gardening tools” while mowing our lawns with Husqvarna lawnmowers. Thus I fully expect that the implements of “energy independence” may indeed be imported. Additionally, oil is used to produce plastics, for example, so we currently cannot break entirely free of oil even if we decided to start walking from today onward. In my view, reducing the demand for finite energy sources should be our highest priority. And we don’t need to wait for politicians to find the perfect bumper sticker phrase to inspire us to do so.




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