Using History as a Portal to Our Future
Over two centuries of America’s formal existence provides much perspective from which to view today’s world. The picture below just hints at a few of these. Looking at the left portion of the picture, in the late 1700’s, life looked good even as we recognize differences in housing, which were much smaller and without many of the indoor, life-quality-enhancing features we enjoy today. Much of the energy it used came directly from human toil. Nevertheless, the air of freedom was healthy to breathe and invigorating.
Over the years, America’s freedoms, including the efforts of private businesses, helped build a nation that indisputably distinguished itself from all others. On the right side of the picture, we see a modern city, such as we might visualize when contemplating travel to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or many others. But this isn’t an American city. It’s one in Malaysia. What’s the point here? Just this: around the world, people have aspirations to be like us, both in civic and material things. That is to say, our success (and our generosity) have wakened. Citizens of other nations try to emulate us. That’s all to the good, but it also means we cannot rest on our laurels if we are to maintain the global leadership and prosperity of our past.
Today, we use much more energy per person than we did in the 1700’s. This usage exacts a price on both our existing, natural fuels and our environment. It also gives us: freedom from much more burdensome toil; added light and warmth; longevity; easy transportation, communication and entertainment; and others. In a nutshell, our access to energy brings a much higher quality of life. Nevertheless, it also makes us aware that providing for our future energy needs is critical to our health, our travel, and our leisure time. So history urges us to look both backward and forward in time, and that’s the purpose of this article.
America’s energy resources are as fundamental to our well-being and survival as the oxygen we breathe. Our energy path is closely tied to our economic decisions, which comprise a second critical ingredient. The linkage between these two policy areas exerts a lot of leverage on our future. Unfortunately, except in the more specialized media for political analysis, the level of public political debate on this linkage is fairly limited. So the purpose of this post is to focus more attention on several aspects of this subject and perhaps stir things up a bit.
It would be, in my opinion, helpful to the nation, if we could stop the extreme negativity of political discourse and the pitting citizen against citizen. Our energy and our economic futures should be an area, with sufficient education, where all citizens could coalesce behind a rational plan. Our economic policy needs a strong component devoted to a forward look at our energy future. Our energy policy, which today is pretty much absent from open political discourse, needs the benefit of a strong tie to economic reality. We need an alliance of creative and forceful leaders coupled with activist citizens who can help integrate these two critical foundations of our future prosperity. Below are my thoughts about what I believe constitute a rational energy policy for the nation. I look forward to hearing thoughts from ROARR’s audience about this plan.
There are some encouraging facts and actions that support a rational plan which exploits synergies between energy solutions and economic solutions. Here are a few:
- America is an energy-rich nation
- Intelligent energy solutions can actually help add jobs and help free up needed funds to meet other future needs
- A well-crafted policy can exploit these strengths and assure American prosperity and security for our children and grandchildren.
As the picture below illustrates, America is rich in recoverable fossil fuels. Much of these resources have become potentially available through very recent extraction technologies. This is good news for today, for next year and for several decades. But it is not a long-range plan for the future. The future inevitably must open a path to more renewable and potentially less polluting supplies including nuclear, solar, wind, and biomass among others.
However, these renewable supplies are not available today without incurring a significant cost penalty. This penalty, in a competitive world, is like entering a long-distance race while being the sole volunteer to carry a two hundred pound backpack filled with lead. It may be a grand gesture, but as a strategy for winning, it leaves much to be desired. So in the meantime, we must build a bridge to the future fuels, using those we rely on today. Am I saying, we should just relax and be happy in our use of domestic oil, gas and coal? No. That would be irresponsible. What I’m saying is that an energy policy worthy of it’s name must deal now with both existing and future fuels by laying out a plan that provides a reasonable “bridge” between the two.
Should the government just mandate to which fuels and at what times this bridging should take place? No. I don’t think the government is smart enough to do that. And that’s not because I think all government employees are incompetent. Rather, it’s because the problem is complex and private enterprise plus citizens voting with their wallets provide many more resources to get to the right answer. That said, the government should undertake a limited role that incentivizes the broad research and development that can open pathways to lower the costs of renewable fuels. An example to follow might be some adaptation of the NACA/NASA Agencies role in research regarding aircraft development. This research helped Boeing, McDonnell, Northrop, Pratt & Whitney, GE and many others to make a great success of America’s aviation efforts. There should be some excellent “lessons learned” available.
In the meantime, we are fortunate to be developing our own domestic resources, such as recently exhibited in North Dakota associated with the Bakken fields of oil shale (see picture below). Production there has created several boom towns and significantly increased America’s oil and gas output in just the last few years. Kudos to those associated with this effort. Our children and grandchildren will be beholden to you!
But there are many further facts and examples to build upon. To cite just a few:
- Resumption of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico
- Exploring and exploiting oil and gas potential in the Outer Continental Shelf
- Opening up ANWR for production in Alaska
- Planning for the Keystone XL pipeline to help move our fuel dependency from remote foreign sources to a North American neighbor with longstanding good relations
Of course, there are those who see things very differently. Unfortunately, the airwaves and streets are often filled with demands for action that are largely supportive of narrow, special interest groups. Such groups have a right to speak for their beliefs. However, those who support a more pragmatic policy as outlined above, have an equal right and must make more time to speak on its behalf.
Nevertheless, the overall direction in which we must travel is clear. Granted, the details remain to be resolved through technological gains, the efforts of intelligent government incentives, and development by private enterprise. The chart below, from the U.S. Energy Information Agency, makes a rational projection of what the future might look like under some reasonable assumptions. Whether this is an optimum assumption or even the initial basis for a final plan is anyone’s guess. But it does illustrate a continuous bridge from our past energy use to a future that incorporates more renewable fuel sources. What is needed is a citizen-government-industry consensus on how to get from today to the future based on evolving technology, citizen choice, and market–driven offerings.
We must not succumb to those who see only government-dictated energy choices and highly exaggerated forecasts of environmental doom lest precipitous choices be made to jump prematurely to new technologies. With such a jump, costs will boomerang and handicap America’s economic competitiveness.
In summary, known challenges exist and there are likely many others yet to be uncovered. However, that is a situation America has faced before. We have the talent, the ideals and the freedom to solve these problems as Americans before us have done. Nevertheless, it will take broad citizen action to surmount the narrow interests that have been gaining undeserved influence in America. Now is a critical and timely opportunity to assemble a coalition of citizens behind a balanced plan for success in our economic and energy activities. An adjunct to this effort should be a series of debates involving citizens, business and government. Topics would include: America’s energy policy; environmental issues; and, the tie-in with America’s economic policy.
I look forward to hearing comments on possible solutions to this quandary from ROARR readers.
Further materials regarding this blog subject can be found in this expanded presentation and its bibliography.