Beware 'energy independence'

Leslie Carlson

I’ve become increasingly skeptical of politicians who espouse a belief in ‘energy independence’ without offering any more details about what that means. Here’s why:

Energy independence has been defined for the current era as being able to meet our needs for oil domestically, rather than buying from the other countries. In 2004, the U.S. consumed almost 21 million barrels of oil a day, the most in the world, and more than three times the second largest consumer of oil, China. That’s short about four million more barrels from our domestic refining capacity.

There’s a few ways we could make up those 4 million barrels. One would be an investment in a massive conservation and efficiency campaign (CAFE standards, anyone?), the likes that this country hasn’t seen since World War II. Unfortunately, many in the domestic coal industry are positively smacking their lips at the prospect of a quick—and dirty—solution: coal liquefaction.

Even Barack Obama is viewed with some skepticism for his interest in filling the nation’s gas tanks with coal.

Coal liquefaction might make us independent of Middle East oil, but it’s likely to cook the planet even faster than conventional oil will. You see, running cars on coal means double the current greenhouse gas emissions that oil produces. As U.S. PIRG’s Ben Dunham colorfully noted in the American Prospect:

"Liquid coal would lead to liquid Florida, liquid Louisiana, and liquid low-lying areas around the world."

Energy independence should be a benefit of comprehensive national, state and local efforts to tackle global warming, not a goal unto itself. Next time a statewide or national candidate talks about energy independence, ask yourself what they mean by “independence.” It could mean the difference between a future Oregon Coast vacation, or a liquid Cannon Beach.

Comments

  • (Show?)

    Energy independence should be a benefit of comprehensive national, state and local efforts to tackle global warming, not a goal unto itself.

    OK, I'll bite. I think both reducing carbon output AND energy independence should be goals.

    Imagine for a moment that the Texas oil fields were pumping giant amounts of crude - enough that America could get all of its oil needs met in Texas.

    If that were true, we wouldn't be at war in Iraq today. Our strategic interests in the middle East would be much different.

    So, while I think the two goals are intertwined, I think it's useful to consider projects that would create energy independence separate from reducing carbon output.

    (That said, I'm not sure that coal liquefaction is a good idea...)

  • Ben Hubbird (unverified)
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    It seems to me that Energy Independence is useful as a frame inasmuch as it can be used to get security hawks on board with tougher fuel efficiency or to give them the political cover to do so.

    But to allow this frame to infect our thinking on global warming is really dangerous. It's not just coal liquefication we have to look out for. Big oil and their allies in congress are eager to slap the "energy indepence" label on bullshit like drilling in ANWR.

    In other words, sure: energy independence (pursued through conservation, renewables, and efficiency) is important. But it has nothing to do with global warming. The right solutions to the problems just happen to align.

  • Ben Hubbird (unverified)
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    PS: the Iraq war is not the result of our inability to produce oil domestically. It's the result of our government being in hock to big oil and big auto companies.

    Yeah, if Texas were Saudi Arabia we probably wouldn't be in Iraq today. But we'd be there in a couple years when we took the last sip of Texas tea.

    Imagine, rather a future of sucking the last drops from the Texas soil, that we immediately begin adjusting our energy usage to appropriate levels for projected supply. Imagine that we begin transitioning that usage to renewable sources that will provide the energy America needs not just today, but forever.

  • Jonathan Radmacher (unverified)
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    How about "Trade Independence." Or "Product Independence." Why is it that oil should be thought of as somehow different that any other product? Shouldn't we be equally looking to produce electronics, clothing and food "independently" of other countries? First off, it would certainly eliminate the huge carbon footprint of international trade. Second, we would be implicitly imposing living wage constraints. Third, we would promote our economy. Fourth, to the extent that we consumed less as a country, because products were more expensive ... wouldn't that mean less garbage, less pollution, etc.?

    So, I guess, I agree that energy independence is important -- just as important as trade independence.

  • (Show?)

    I agree that energy independence is a different goal than lowered carbon emissions--particularly politically. But given that the two travel the same road for such a long time, I'm not quite so worried about hitchhiking with the energy independence Prius.

    As to coal. The historic method, Fischer-Tropsch, releases more CO2 than regular petroleum in its production. But once the coal is liquified, it burns far more cleanly. Some have proposed capturing the CO2 during production, thus dramatically reducing the carbon emissions from this technology. So far as I know, however, no one has suggested a really viable way. Probably it's a dead end, but I have the slightest bit of interest in exploring it further (the US has massive coal reserves).

    Anyway, your post makes an astute distinction that we're wise to acknowledge.

  • East Bank Thom (unverified)
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    Here's another monkey wrench... Imagine limitless, free fuel for autos... Imagine instant, eternal gridlock as any economic restraint is removed from taxing our infrastructure.

    It's a puzzle.

  • Ben Hubbird (unverified)
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    EBT: Are you arguing that we should't pursue renewable energy sources because, if fully realized and implemented, they will cause traffic jams?

    To begin with, I don't think anyone (with the exception of some of the crackpot cold fusion folks) is imagining limitless, free fuel for autos. Rather, we're imagnining driving less, and when we do drive, driving more fuel efficient, less polluting autos.

    But even if there were limitless, free fuel, I don't think you'd actually see a very marked increase in traffic. Demand for fuel is extremely inelastic in this country -- gasoline is viewed as a basic necessity and we drive when we need to, not just when we can afford to.

    I don't drive, and it would take a lot more than free gas for me to start. (Free insurance? Maybe...)

  • (Show?)

    So, while I think the two goals are intertwined, I think it's useful to consider projects that would create energy independence separate from reducing carbon output.

    Frankly, I don't think we have enough time to do them separately, especially when the latest scientific research shows global warming accelerating faster than ever.

  • East Bank Thom (unverified)
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    Ben, you've got no argument with me, 'cause i've got not argument here. (There's no argument against the fact that high fuel prices cause a segment of the driving population - not you - to drive less.)

    More a warning: Be careful what you pray for.

  • jim karlock (unverified)
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    Comments on THREE postings:

    Jeff Alworth As to coal. The historic method, Fischer-Tropsch, releases more CO2 than regular petroleum in its production. But once the coal is liquified, it burns far more cleanly. Some have proposed capturing the CO2 during production, thus dramatically reducing the carbon emissions from this technology. So far as I know, however, no one has suggested a really viable way. JK: The CO2 release in production is due to getting H2 out of water by moving the O to CO2. If we get H2 by electrolysis of water, that problem goes away and we get clean liquid fuel. (Of course a lot of electricity is required which implies nukes.) One can even envision getting carbon form atmospheric CO2 to produce a totally carbon neutral fuel.

    East Bank Thom: Here's another monkey wrench... Imagine limitless, free fuel for autos... Imagine instant, eternal gridlock as any economic restraint is removed from taxing our infrastructure. It's a puzzle. JK: No puzzle unless you think people will drive to work twice each morning if gas is cheap. I argue that other consideration dominate. I even suspect that we are close to saturation in the amount of driving per capita due to time constraints.

    Leslie Carlson: Frankly, I don't think we have enough time to do them separately, especially when the latest scientific research shows global warming accelerating faster than ever. JK: Beware of leaning about science from scientific illiterates, so typical of the American press. Here are some sources run by people literate in science: Icecap.us ClimateAudit.org junkscience.com/ co2science.org/

    That is not to say the they are correct in everything that they say, but you really should take a look at what the other side is saying. ClimateAudit was responsible for pointing out the errors in the NASA temperature record that was recently n the news as well as proving that the “hockey stick” temperature curve used by Al Gore is wrong. (You can feed noise into the computer program used and get hockey stick curves.)

    co2science.org is a good source of leads to quality journal article about warming. This is where I found the articles about the close correlation between the solar cycle length and climate. I forgot where I found that water vapor has about twice the warming effect of CO2, but it is verified by a web site associated with Al Gore’s “science” adviser: realclimate.org/index.php?p=142

    This is especially important since the most important temperature record (Maintained by Jim Hansen of NASA) was recently found to be in error and it turns out that they now believe that 1998 was not the warmest year after all, 1934 was! Also the claim that the warmest years were clustered in the 1990s appears wrong - the corrected data shows many of the warmest years to be in the 1930s-1940s.

    All we can be really sure of is: the science is NOT setteled.

    Thanks JK

  • OBEWAN (unverified)
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    Liquid coal would not have a problem with co2 if investment is made in carbon sequestration. Kinder Morgan in Texas already captures over 1 billion cu ft of co2 daily and pumps it underground! We have gov't funding for ethanol which is an insane option given that it takes more energy to product than it yields and still adds massive greenhouse gasses. Be fair about it and fund liquid coal as well - a better option.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    Coal liquifaction is an old technology. The only commercial level production facility was built by Germany during WWII. Back in the early 80's they tried to update the technology and process in Thunder Basin, WY. At the time oil had to rise to $70/bbl in those days dollars for the process to become economically viable.

    More promising energy independent research areas are (in no particular order): Solar panels, hydrogen cell technology, wind power and tidal action.

  • pacowan (unverified)
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    ah, yes, "energy independence"; becareful what you wish for. it makes me think of of that churchill quote... "the united states invariably does the right thing, after having exhausted every other alternative." get ready to exhausted one alternative.

    if you want another perspective on "energy independence", look at what the right-wingers are talking about. they want to turn america into the new saudi arabia of liquid coal, drill off every coast and in every protected area, and divert entire rivers and build small scale heat process nuclear plants to extract the hydrocarbons from oil shale in colorado.

    look on the bright side though, if it all goes well, soon it will actually be profitable to tear down freeways just to get the bitumen from the asphalt!

  • Steve Rosenbaum (unverified)
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    Excellent post. I also liked Jonathan's comments. We need to reduce carbon emmissions, invest in alternative energy and invest in diplomacy; however, "energy indepednance" is a misguided goal.

    We need to embrace globalism and work to make it as progrssive as possible, rather than fighting it.

  • jim karlock (unverified)
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    Kurt Chapman Coal liquifaction is an old technology. The only commercial level production facility was built by Germany during WWII. JK: And South Africa. Still in production there. sasol.com

    Kurt Chapman More promising energy independent research areas are (in no particular order): Solar panels, JK: No economically viable “commercial level production facility” has ever been built. They cost about 5-10 time what current production methods cost.

    Kurt Chapman hydrogen cell technology JK: There is no viable source of hydrogen. No economically viable “commercial level production facility” has ever been built.

    Kurt Chapman , wind power JK: This actually works. But the power comes and goes with the wind, so other plants still have to be kept on standby.

    Kurt Chapman and tidal action. JK: Nice theory. No economically viable “commercial level production facility” has ever been built.

    pacowan look on the bright side though, if it all goes well, soon it will actually be profitable to tear down freeways just to get the bitumen from the asphalt! JK: Why do some people keep wishing for harm to come to innocent people? Don’t you realize that efficient transportation is one of the keys to the high standard of living that we all enjoy?

    Thanks JK

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)
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    Leslie is on target. Energy independence could mean:

    • new nuclear fission plants with their tons of eternal poisonous waste.

    • coal gasification with millions of tons of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere.

    • drilling ANWAR and sensitive offshore areas.

    • annexing Venezuela.

  • (Show?)

    Jim K,

    You certainly are right that efficient transportation is key to "high standards of living." But there is an undistributed middle between "efficient transportation" and your "everything is for the best in this best of all possible [transportation] worlds attitudes.

    To take an example that stays away from cars and highways for a minute, grain from eastern Washington, Oregon & western Idaho used to be shipped west for water transport mainly by rail. According to retired wheat farming relatives of mine SE of Spokane, when the dams on the upper Columbia (and Snake?) were being pushed in the 1950s, a lot of people were skeptical but were persuaded that barging was an acceptable alternative. Much of the rail system fell into desuetude, and now has been torn up -- in some cases the rights of way have been turned into biking and hiking pathways.

    Now we find that aspects of our standard of living embodied in environmental protection laws have a substantial likelihood of leading to some dam breaching. If or when that comes, there are going to be a lot of farmers bitter about being pressured into giving up a system that worked and then having this one yanked out from under them. How the grain will be moved I don't know.

    The main point here is that "standard of living" has a lot of dimensions. In terms of my own personal values, I believe that my standard of living might well be improved if the culture (cult?) of individual automobiles were scaled back. Often there are multiples in households, with an increasing minority of households with more vehicles than drivers, with attendant effects on landscape via highways, walking, noise, air pollution (quite apart from global warming issues). For the most crucial transport issue related to broadly improved standard of living in my view -- movement of foods providing ample diet to non-farmers -- it might well be that reconsituting a rail system in which the infrastructure had equal subsidization to that of the interstate highway system for trucks would be more efficient.

    Efficiency is like relevance, as I suspect you understand quite well -- it is not a general quality, but something that must relate to an end. Our current transportation system is particularly "efficient" at allowing huge geographic distribution of production relative to consumption sites, of residence relative to workplaces, and of long distance travel, as well as conversion of distances that once were long into short ones, timewise.

    It is grossly inefficient in a number of other respects. Environmental impacts, not only of driving but also of the production and disposal of autos and their parts, their fuels, and their roads make it inefficient in promoting a sustainable economy. It is grossly inefficient at supporting, never mind promoting, healthy patterns of life and physical activity that affect both lesser morbidity (e.g. decline of quality of life due to being overweight, which I experience) and morbidity and mortality from crucial chronic diseases, particularly cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases. Such chronic diseases have taken on central importance with the dramatic decline of deaths from infectious diseases (partly due to decline of epidemics within famines, for which 19th c. ocean & river shipping and rail transport did the heavy lifting, and partly due to immunization technologies).

    Various qualities in life likewise involve similar trade-offs -- standards of living that could be considered high can involve very different mixes of pieces.

  • sigtuna bo (unverified)
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    Hi Leslie,

    Actually if you look at what you are saying this is an opportunity.

    If every American that owned a car decided to not drive one day a week it would have enourmous effect on the total consumtion of oil.

    Ponder the thought.

    Admittingly this doesn't work for all car owners, BUT it does work for many and could be a first step in the right direction.

    Michael /puss & kram

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