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The alt fuels distraction

In the next 50 years, give or take, those of us in the United States will face two challenges. We must wean ourselves off of oil and we must cut our carbon-dioxide emissions by around 60 percent. Either would be difficult in isolation; together, well ... imagine patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time, only with trillions of dollars and millions of lives at stake. And with one arm tied behind your back.

What's the best way to meet these challenges? If you were the proverbial Martian, visiting our planet to dispassionately assess our options, what would you find most promising?

Would it be nuclear power? "Clean coal"? Ethanol? You'd only decide on those options if you happen to be an uncommonly gullible Martian (or one in the pay of big industry—but more on that later).

Substantially increasing the amount of electricity we get from nuclear power would mean building dozens of expensive new plants, none of which would be completed for at least 10 years. Each would be a huge risk for investors and virtually uninsurable without government assistance—and once it had run its course, would cost a fortune to decommission. Each would produce tons of waste—when we don't even know what to do with the waste we already have—and each would produce fissile material that could fall into the wrong hands. By some estimates, the CO2 emitted in the full lifecycle of a nuclear plant—taking into account the oil burned mining, transporting and processing uranium, not to mention constructing the plants themselves—would be only a third less than that released by a coal-fired plant.

Burning coal releases CO2. To avoid climate catastrophe, "clean coal" plants would have to sequester their CO2 emissions underground. This technology is speculative, untested and at least 10 years out.

Corn-based ethanol is the result of an extremely energy-intensive, CO2-emitting, polluting process. Corn is grown in massive monocultures with petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, which are busy accumulating in an enormous "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Ethanol refining plants consume enormous amounts of natural gas or coal; their product is distributed across the country in oil-burning vehicles. In the end, grain-based ethanol produces little more energy than what's required to make it, and does virtually nothing to reduce CO2 emissions.

What about cellulosic ethanol, the oft-cited, eco-friendlier cousin of grain-based ethanol? Well, it's—wait for it—largely speculative, untested and at least 10 years out.

Would a smart Martian choose these uneconomical and/or inefficient and/or unproven fuel sources as its primary means of addressing America's immediate energy challenges? Would he be willing to wait 10 years to ramp up supply, in a quixotic attempt to keep up with burgeoning demand? Not unless he'd been paid off by big energy companies. (Which, let's face it, would inevitably happen.)

Our Martian would probably suggest we focus first on reducing our energy use—and might be delighted to discover several simple, at-hand ways to do so. Some low-hanging fruit: boost energy efficiency standards for cars, appliances, industrial equipment and buildings. Institute "feebates," which would tax the purchase of fuel-inefficient vehicles and apply the revenue to rebates on fuel-efficient vehicles. Mandate that all government purchases—of vehicles, buildings, appliances, or anything else—be tied to strict energy-efficiency requirements. Pass a federal renewable portfolio standard, mandating that the feds get a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources.

And if our Martian wanted to get a little bit more ambitious, he might emphasize these broader policy and technological initiatives:

• Quit subsidizing fossil-fuel industries. Period.

• Impose a gas or carbon tax. It would put uniform pressure on the market to reduce oil consumption, without favoring any particular alternative. (The impact on low-income Americans could be offset with reduced payroll taxes.)

• Encourage density by reversing land-use policies at all levels of government that subsidize road-building and sprawl at the expense of compact, walkable, mixed-use communities served by effective public transportation.

• Drop perverse agricultural subsidies that overwhelmingly favor petro-heavy industrial agriculture and long-distance food transport at the expense of organic farms and local food systems.

• Scrap electricity-market regulations that virtually mandate centralized power production at large, inefficient plants (by some estimates, up to two-thirds of energy is wasted en route to end users); instead, encourage decentralized production from small-scale, site-appropriate sources.

Given the panoply of readily available demand-reduction measures, our befuddled Martian might wonder, why is debate over America's energy future dominated by supply-side options like nuclear, "clean coal," and ethanol? If he hung out for a while and studied the socio-economic scene, our Martian might propose the following explanations:

• Policymakers are terrified to tell constituents that big upheavals are coming and big changes are needed. They prefer to propagate the illusion that one set of fuels can simply be swapped out for another, with no disturbance in the hyperconsuming, big-box retailing, suburb-expanding American way of life.

• Many of the most effective energy strategies would mean less fossil-fuel power and more people power—i.e., labor. Site-situated power plants and small organic farms, for instance, require more human labor than their centralized, mechanized, super-sized counterparts. The economic consensus of the American power elites (in both parties) has it that labor costs must be held to a minimum by any means necessary—union-busting, federal rate hikes, outsourcing, or liberal use of illegal immigrants.

• Finally and most significantly: it's the money, stupid. Scratch the surface of each of the elite's favored alternatives and you'll find an industry with political connections and the financial clout to shape public dialogue. The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry front group, has openly established an organization designed to push pro-nuclear talking points into the public sphere—it's already paid off in the form of an influential op-ed in The Washington Post . Ethanol has even more friends. Legislators from agricultural states love it; corn brokers like Archer Daniels Midland love it; automakers who want their products to look greener love it; the oil companies that will eventually own and run ethanol refineries and stations love it. And coal—well, even kids love coal!

Alternative fuels backed by big industry bucks aren't necessarily without merit. But those concerned about America's—and the world's—energy future need not accept the debate as it is currently configured, with its skewed focus on supply increase over demand reduction and big-industry products over decentralized, human-scale solutions.

Public dialogue is influenced by big money, but it is also, at least for now, influenced by the public. And we, the public, should approach the energy problem with fresh, unbiased eyes.

Like Martians.

David Roberts is a staff writer at Grist Magazine. His blog is  http://gristmill.grist.org.

Editorial Notes: For more on the subject (and an opportunity to give feedback), visit the Alt-fuels post at Gristmill. -BA

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