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June/July '01 Articles:

The Chemical Industry Exposed

Juvenile (In)justice

A Taboo Subject IMPACT Column

Overpriced Musings:
Dinosaur Fuel

Fish Are Not Swimming Vegetables

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The Muddlemarch: 1

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art/Eric Spitler

Dinosaur Fuel
Becomes a Dinosaur

My car will probably be useless in sixty years.

It's kind of weird to think about cars as we know them becoming as extinct as the dinosaurs whose remnants power them. It is decidedly inevitable that fossil fuels, being the nonrenewable resource that they are, will eventually be exhausted.

All of our energy comes from the sun in some form or another. The sun heats photovoltaic cells for solar energy. The sun heats the earth, which creates wind that can be harnessed for power. The sun evaporates water, which then rains down and creates flowing rivers and streams, our source for hydroelectric power.

Fossil fuels came indirectly from the sun as well. They're the easiest form of energy to use, because they are incredible storehouses of power that need only be ignited to be useful. Technically, they are renewable, since the process that created them could conceivably happen again. They just take an incredibly, cosmically long time to create. They are the remnants of plants and animals that were buried under sediment, and then subjected to millions of years of heat and pressure to chemically change them into oil, coal, and natural gas. This is far too long for us impatient humans, who now number over six billion and depend on fossil fuels overwhelmingly for our transportation needs and power generation (about 90% of the world energy supply).

This is going to change, one way or another. Estimates from the World Energy Council and U.S. Geological Survey on the amount of recoverable oil left on earth have remarkably not grown over the past half century, and they suggest that we are nearing a peak in world oil production. Demand for oil is expected to increase by 35 to 39 percent by 2010. According to petroleum geologist Joseph Riva, formerly of the Congressional Research Service, planned oil production expansions will fall some 10 million barrels per day short of the required demand. Economics would normally come into play here and employ more firms to explore for oil, but the world is so thoroughly explored at this point that no new major sources of oil are expected to be found. We could always rape the pristine Alaskan frontier for oil as our president wishes, but that would simply push the impending peak back a year or two at most and change nothing about our current plight of dwindling fuel sources. In addition, the persistent burning of fossil fuels will continue to have a devastating effect on the concentration of ozone-destroying greenhouse gases that have already caused a 42 percent thinning of the polar ice caps.

Federal policy in the last half century has had an abysmal record of promoting fuel sources that are renewable and that have a relatively benign effect on the global environment. Taxation and regulatory measures have profoundly been used to subsidize our dependence on fossil fuels. According to Ralph Nader's campaign web site, only mediocre efforts have been made recently to turn the tide, such as the Clinton-Gore Administration's 1997 Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. It is a $1.5 billion subsidy program for The Big Three auto companies that has done precious little to improve efficiency, and has more served as a smoke screen for business as usual. And the petroleum companies are becoming increasingly nervous as they cling to their dying cash cow, because they know that once fossil fuels are gone, they won't be able to control the most abundant energy source in existence, the sun.

Current economics just don't favor getting done what needs to get done to ensure the proliferation of abundant energy that is clean and reliable. And so we, as a thinking people, must unite against business interests and implement policy decisions for the greater good. Also featured on Nader's campaign web site are excerpts from Energy Innovations: A Prosperous Path to a Clean Environment, a joint study prepared by half a dozen of the nation's most prominent energy and environmental research and advocacy groups. It suggests that policy initiatives could be put into place in the next few years that could produce:

  • A 64 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions (prime cause of acid rain) by 2010, compared to 1990 levels
  • A 27 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions (a key precursor of ground-level ozone, smog)
  • Deep cuts in emissions of other damaging pollutants, including fine particles, toxic metals like mercury, and hydrocarbons
  • Consumer net savings reaching $58 billion per year, equivalent to $530 per household by 2010
  • Oil use reductions totaling 4.5 million barrels of oil per day (mb/d), reducing the U.S. oil import bill by $12 billion a year
  • A robust federal research and development program in sustainable renewable energy sources, so that the energy-independence promises of wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy are finally realized

... among many other benefits to economic stability and human health.

There is a clear plan of action that must now begin to take shape. This is a course that must be smarter than the whims of the "invisible hand" of economics. There must be another path, one that requires active thinking and an abandonment of our laissez-faire attitude toward energy. Things will not take care of themselves, and the world will be in a severe crisis if steps are not taken now to prevent it.

I'm increasingly worried and dismayed that the momentum seems to be shifting away from these possibilities, as more and more of the environmental policies instituted by the more desirable Democrats are repealed. It's a recipe for disaster, and my cynicism tells me that we will procrastinate ourselves into chaos over simple economic myopia. It's time to begin thinking about the next quarter century instead of the next fiscal quarter.

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