Gas prices are on the rise again and news analysts are kicking it around, wondering who is being ripped off this time. But geologists, scientists and even some economists suspect that unlike other gas shortages, this one is the real thing, or at least the beginning of the real thing: production has peaked and the era of cheap oil is about to end.
The consequences of the end of oil are monumental beyond any overstatement. Without leadership at this moment, our chances of avoiding future chaos are slim. But who will provide the leadership?
President Bush showed up in California last week for Earth Day. In Sacramento, he met with representatives of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a consortium of companies and government agencies that promotes hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles. Bush happily hyped the "hydrogen economy" as the ultimate solution to our oil addiction. Meanwhile, to deal with the short term gas price rise, he instructed the EPA to start dropping environmental requirements for warm weather fuel additives. We'll save a few pennies at the pump but our lungs will pay for it.
The hydrogen economy is an interesting concept. Hydrogen, the lightest element, consisting of one proton and one electron, can be dissociated from water (H2O) by applying an electrical current. The idea is to use electricity generated by nuclear plants or potentially solar and wind generators, to produce hydrogen from water. Hydrogen is most efficiently burned in fuel cells, which are basically a battery that recharges with a fuel like hydrogen or natural gas.
There are major challenges to overcome before this idea could even approach implementation. One is the complexity and cost of fuel cells which are not at all a mature technology for widespread use. Another is the problem of hydrogen storage. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to compress and cool hydrogen to a liquid state for storage in a tank. Finally there's the source of electricity for generating hydrogen: a phenomenal ramp-up of nuclear and/or renewable power generation will be required because hydrogen is not the actual source of energy. It is merely an energy carrier, a way to store energy and pack it along to keep us moving down the road.
Nearly everyone agrees that in his January SOTA, Bush did something positive by admitting that America is addicted to oil. Admitting one's addiction is the first step on the familiar 12-step addiction recovery program. But it is only half of the first step. The other half is recognizing that we are powerless to change without turning ourselves over to a higher power, be it religious or secular. Without completing even the first step, there is no progress on the road to recovery and the addict has only freed himself to get more creative about finding the next fix while deluding himself that something has been accomplished. And so the Bush solutions to our energy addiction boil down to three expensive pipe dreams, as embodied in the 2005 Energy Bill.
The first pipe dream is that billions more in subsidies (the 2005 Energy Bill provides $5 billion in new tax breaks and government spending programs) to the giant US oil companies will increase domestic oil and gas production enough to free us from imported oil. One problem with this dream is that sucking more oil out of the ground will only dig us deeper into the global warming hole while it pollutes sensitive arctic and coastal ecosystems. Another problem is that all that money does nothing to build a permanent or even a transitional energy solution. Oil companies are reaping windfall profits with no obligation to invest them in renewable solutions. Oil industry subsidies turn us into the equivalent of the crack whore who gives it away for free to her pimp.
The second pipe dream is the hydrogen/nuclear economy. In the Bush scheme of things, hydrogen is joined at the hip with nuclear-generated electricity. Without going into all the pitfalls of nuclear power - the safety problem, the waste storage problem, the nuclear weapons proliferation problem - just consider the scale of nuclear build-up required to replace gasoline with hydrogen.
US gasoline consumption as of March 2005 was some 320,500,000 gallons per day. Researchers at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory claim that a single Next Generation nuclear plant will be able to produce the hydrogen equivalent of 200,000 gallons of gasoline each day. At that rate, it would require more than 1,600 of these new 1.7 gigawatt nuclear plants to meet our current gasoline needs alone (replacing diesel and jet fuel would require additional capacity). The US today has 104 commercial nuclear power plants, many of which will reach the end of their safe working lives in the next few decades. A final point to consider is that uranium too, is a limited resource, deposited in relatively rare rock formations by fluvial processes over eons of geologic time. Even if we could build 1,600 new nuclear power plants, we would have a hard time finding the uranium to operate them.
The third Bush pipe dream is one shared by many well-meaning people - replacing gasoline with corn-derived ethanol. But it takes a lot of fossil fuel to grow corn and process it into ethanol: fertilizer manufactured from natural gas, diesel to run farm machinery and transport grain, electricity to run irrigation pumps, and coal to run the fermentation process are just a few of the inputs used. As a result, the energy returned on energy invested (EROI) is either negative or just barely in the positive, depending on which study you read. In a recent interview, agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry put it this way: "... ethanol is just a way to get rid of surplus corn ... to start raising a burnable fuel from your cropland at the present cost in erosion and soil degradation and toxicity is a fool's bargain."
The answer to our oil addiction is not the desperate, chaotic search for the next fix. We do need energy, it's true, but just as alcohol and drug addictions are symptoms of an unmet spiritual need, so our oil addiction is the symptom of a society out of balance, and it is that imbalance we must address first.
One of the 12 steps to recovery from addiction is to take a personal, moral inventory of oneself. If we took such an inventory of America, what would we find? I believe we would find a deep-seated moral failure going back to the frontier days when European immigrants poured into a vast continent that seemed free for the taking. Beginning with the genocide of the native people, the American dream was not only about freedom and independence, it was also about the rush and the boom and the getting rich quick, applied with such furious dynamism over the past two centuries that the getting and spending is never ending and the shopping only stops when we drop from exhaustion.
America today consumes one out of every four barrels of oil that the planet produces. We are already at war over Iraq's oil and may soon go to war over Iran's.
But again, we have to move on from admitting we have a problem to admitting that we can't solve it on our own. And we can't afford to wait out Bush's last 1,000 days, nor can we wait till the next congress, hoping the Dems emerge with some strength from the fall elections. We need leadership now.
Democrats have been throwing themselves on the gas price bandwagon in recent days, calling for price gouging legislation and better regulation of oil markets to control price manipulation. A windfall profits tax and revoking oil company subsidies are also on the table. These are important measures, but the Dems risk going too far down the quick fix path without addressing the real problem.
The Toronto Globe and Mail reported on a memo from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to candidates that instructed them to: "Demonstrate your dedication to fighting for middle-class families by clearly explaining how you will work to keep down the price of gas if elected to Congress."
And so, Senator Bob Menendez, D-NJ, for example, has proposed rolling back the federal gas tax for two months - exactly the wrong strategy. Keeping down the price of gas this summer cannot be the Democrats' primary goal if they want to lead the country away from oil addiction. We have to admit we have a problem and we have to ask a higher power to help us, not pander to our immediate appetites.
A gas tax is one of the higher powers we should be appealing to. A tax levied by a democratically elected government in the people's interest is truly a higher power, a sacred trust. While American drivers are consuming some of the cheapest gas on the planet, Europeans are paying $6 to $7 a gallon, mainly because of higher taxes. Higher gas prices have encouraged more efficient vehicles and mass transit alternatives, putting Europe far ahead of us on the path to sustainability.
Jerome a Paris at Daily Kos titled an entry last week: "Gas prices - what's the right strategy for the Dems?" He said: "I'd like to argue that Dems must, today, argue for a gas tax, and own it." Paris listed four critical benefits of higher gas taxes:
they increase gas prices, thus encouraging Americans to use less gas. By reducing demand, that will lower oil prices and thus both the volume and the cost of oil imports;
they raise funds that can be used to help those Americans that will suffer from higher prices;
they raise funds that can be used to invest in the R&D in technologies that will help find substitutes to oil;
they can be used to make the process of increasing oil prices more predictable, which will allow to smoothen the transition.
Paris is spearheading a group effort on Daily Kos to draft a new energy plan called "Energize America." Bill McKibben wrote that he found it "far more comprehensive and thoughtful than anything the think tanks have produced," and called on the Democrats to use it as a model.
Just as anti-war activists and bloggers have forced the Democrats to take a more critical stance on the Iraq war, so the grassroots and the netroots must pressure the Democrats to stop fossil foolishness and take the bold action that is needed to conquer our oil addiction.
In the 1980s, the 12-step program originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous went through an explosion of popularity as a tool for healing all sorts of addictions and illnesses of the spirit. The12-step movement created both an organizing paradigm and a network of fellowships all over the planet in a short period of time. It is curious that this occurred just prior to the development of the World Wide Web. If yoked together, what might these two movements accomplish for the urgent goal of healing the spiritual crisis that lies at the root of our oil addiction?