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Facing the Oil Problem

Charles F. Doran, Johns Hopkins Magazine
A call for an energy policy that would spark outside-the-box basic research, end dependence on foreign oil, and reduce death and destruction on the nation’s highways.

… U.S. government agencies have recently come around to the view that conventional oil supplies are likely to peak worldwide sooner rather than later. Although U.S. supplies peaked as far back as 1970, the government has long denied concern about the availability of oil to fuel future world growth. But Hard Truths, a 2007 report issued by the U.S. National Petroleum Council, an advisory group to the Department of Energy, included assessments from both the U.S. Government Accounting Office and the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory regarding the likelihood that world oil is peaking. Both Hard Truths and the 2008 International Energy Agency study World Energy Outlook include data and graphical evidence of the global peaking of conventional oil, especially in non-OPEC areas.

… A logical response to the oil-automobile dilemma is to chart new directions through energy research and development. I wish I could report that this is what the United States has done for the last three decades. Unfortunately, the opposite is the case.

… Energy research and development must be insulated from politics to the extent that scientists, not politicians or unqualified administrators, make the decisions on projects and amounts, and politicians are precluded from intervening in decision making regarding the location of facilities, projects, and research initiatives. While incorporating legitimate standards of oversight and monitoring, the program must be insulated from the current practice of manipulation by special interests and periodic congressional budgetary cutbacks and intrusion.

Whereas two-thirds of R&D traditionally goes for development and the other third for research, the balance in the beginning ought to shift toward research and away from development. Past attempts to push on to development, without having fully expanded the research base upon which that development must establish itself, have been mistakes. Pure research is as much a legitimate target of support as so-called applied research.

… A significant portion of research monies ought to be spent on ideas outside the conventional, ideas that are high-risk but exciting and capable of turning the understanding of the energy-transportation nexus upside down. It is my contention that the oil-transportation industry, when combined with the fruits of information technology, is on the cusp of a revolution within industry (as opposed to an industrial revolution). This revolution may witness electricity at the core of the transportation-energy mix, propelled by innovations in storage and transmission of electricity that allow vehicles of all kinds to exploit motors instead of engines, sparing the environment and saving the declining reserves of oil for other petrochemical and manufacturing applications.

… I foresee that the three separate industries — oil production, automobile manufacturing, and information technology — will be replaced by one megaindustry combining aspects of energy, transportation, and digital communication into a single commercial network. Whether the United States is the center of this new gargantuan megaindustry is for the scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs of America to decide.

Charles F. Doran, SAIS ’66, A&S ’69 (PhD), has studied energy policy, oil politics, and Persian Gulf security for decades; among his 10 books is Myth, Oil, and Politics (Free Press, 1977). After his essay “Life After Easy Oil” appeared in a recent issue of The American Interest, we asked him if he’d write something on energy policy for Johns Hopkins Magazine, and he graciously agreed. Besides being director of the Global Theory and History Program at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Doran is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of International Studies and directs SAIS’ Canadian Studies and International Relations programs.
(February 2009 issue)

Advice to Pres. Obama (#5): One Engineer’s Advice for Energy Policy

Engineer-Poet, The Oil Drum
… Whatever we undertake to do must aim for three very important things:

1. It must reduce the use of what is scarce, imported, or gives money to people hostile to us.
2. It must only increase the use of what we have in abundance (which isn’t everything touted as such).
3. It must reduce the burden of emissions on land, water and air.

If we don’t keep all of these things in mind, we will make bad problems worse. (How much worse? Think “TVA coal-ash lagoon burst”, but flooding the entire Ninth Ward of New Orleans. That much worse.)
(26 January 2009)

David Korten: “Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth”
(audio, video and transcript)
Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, Democracy Now
As President Barack Obama reveals more details of his $825 billion economic stimulus plan, we turn to David Korten of YES! Magazine. In his new book, Korten argues that the nation faces a monumental economic challenge that goes far beyond anything being discussed in Congress. He writes that now is an opportune moment to move forward an agenda to replace the failed money-serving institutions of our present economy with the institutions of a new economy dedicated to serving life. [includes rush transcript]

David Korten, co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine. He is also a former professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business and the author of several books, including When Corporations Rule the World and The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. His newest book is titled Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth (Berrett-Koehler).

… Juan Gonzalez and I spoke to David Korten on Friday about the nation’s economic crisis and how it should be addressed.

DAVID KORTEN: Well, it really starts with being clear that we have a failed economic system. And we’ve seen very dramatically the consequences of the financial failure. But what we’re not talking about is the connection to the environmental failure, the destruction of earth’s living systems, and the social failure of an economic system that by its very design, particularly as manifest on Wall Street, is designed to increase inequality. You know, having worked in international development for many years, I’m very familiar with the argument that the way to deal with poverty is, through economic growth, to bring up the bottom. But, of course, what we see—and we’ve seen this for decades—is that, in fact, economic growth tends to raise the top and depress the bottom.
(26 January 2009)

Hard Realities: Why Understating the Cost of Dealing With Climate Change Hurts

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
Despite our taste for doing so, the world can never be divided into two kinds of people. Still, were one to try and divvy up climate change activists, one way to do it might be to divide up those who admit that addressing climate change is going to be painful and those who are inclined to minimize the difficulties, perhaps even claim that in our mitigation strategies lies the beginning of a new economy.

… There is some real truth there – but there’s a big missing elephant in this room. The problem is that if the people don’t actually care about climate change, they are likely to seek solutions, say, to rising oil prices that make the climate situation worse. For example, in the Northeast, where I live, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of households burning coal for heat, in response to rising heating oil prices and availability issues. In order to choose spending thousands on insulation, rather than a thousand dollars on a coal stove, a household will have to actually care about climate change – and convey that concern to their representatives in such a way as to provided economic incentives to choose the more expensive option. It is not clear to me that the best ways to keep people comfortable in their homes or to get us new jobs are always ones that lead towards the radical shifts in carbon usage that are needed – and my concern is that as long as the message remains “we won’t ask too much of you” people will indeed expect not to be asked.

In this sense, my own feeling is that those who understate the costs of mitigating climate change actually do more harm than good. I don’t blame them for their preference for the politically palatable – I would prefer that too. But I would argue that there are two problems – the first is that a more politically palatable strategy is infeasible, particularly given the current economic situation, and that it risks branding climate activists as liars later on, when the bills come due.

… The other relevant point, and one that seems to be grasped by few climate activists is this. In 2006, 80% by 2050 seemed quite radical. In just 2 years we’ve learned that climate sensitivity is, as Carbon Equity puts it, ”double” what was thought in 2006. Meanwhile, in two years we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in arctic ice, in the ability of the ocean to absorb carbon and we’ve begun to see signs of substantial increases in methane release – all things that the IPCC had predicted might happen at the end of the century.

Which means that given the pace at which the acceptable carbon levels are being pushed back, it would be foolhardy not to leave room in our analyses for the reality that the earth’s response to carbon already emitted may push back acceptable levels of carbon still further. That means, we may have to move even faster than we think.
(26 January 2009)