The Energy Challenge of Our Lifetime

Of all the challenges facing President Obama, none is likely to prove as daunting, or important to the future of this nation, as that of energy.

Of all the challenges facing President Barack Obama next January, none is likely to prove as daunting, or important to the future of this nation, as that of energy. After all, energy policy -- so totally mishandled by the outgoing Bush-Cheney administration -- figures in each of the other major challenges facing the new president, including the economy, the environment, foreign policy, and our Middle Eastern wars. Most of all, it will prove a monumental challenge because the United States faces an energy crisis of unprecedented magnitude that is getting worse by the day.

The U.S. needs energy -- lots of it. Day in and day out, this country, with only 5% of the world's population, consumes one quarter of the world's total energy supply. About 40% of our energy comes from oil: some 20 million barrels, or 840 million gallons a day. Another 23% comes from coal, and a like percentage from natural gas. Providing all this energy to American consumers and businesses, even in an economic downturn, remains a Herculean task, and will only grow more so in the years ahead. Addressing the environmental consequences of consuming fossil fuels at such levels, all emitting climate-altering greenhouse gases, only makes this equation more intimidating.

As President Obama faces our energy problem, he will have to address three overarching challenges:

1. The United States relies excessively on oil to supply its energy needs at a time when the future availability of petroleum is increasingly in question.

2. Our most abundant domestic source of fuel, coal, is the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases when consumed in the current manner.

3. No other source of energy, including natural gas, nuclear power, biofuels, wind power, and solar power is currently capable of supplanting our oil and coal consumption, even if a decision is made to reduce their importance in our energy mix.

This, then, is the essence of Obama's energy dilemma. Let's take a closer look at each of its key components.

Excessive Reliance on Oil

No other major power relies on getting so much of its energy from oil. Making that 40% figure especially daunting is this: the world supply of oil is about to contract. The competition for remaining supplies will then intensify, while most of what remains is located in inherently unstable regions, threatening to lead the U.S. into unceasing oil wars.

Just how much of the world's untapped oil supply remains to be exploited, and how quickly we will reach a peak of sustainable daily world oil output, are matters of some contention, but recently the scope of debate on this question has narrowed appreciably.

Most energy experts now believe that we have consumed approximately half of the planet's original petroleum inheritance and are very close to a peak in production. No one knows whether it will arrive in 2010, 2012, 2015, or beyond, but it is certainly near. In addition, most energy professionals now believe that global oil output will peak at far lower levels than only recently imagined -- perhaps 90-95 million barrels per day, not the 115-125 million barrels once projected by the U.S. Department of Energy. (Here I'm speaking only of conventional, liquid petroleum; there are some "unconventional" sources of oil -- Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, and the like -- that may boost these numbers by a few millions of barrels per day, without altering the global energy equation significantly.)

What underlies these more pessimistic assumptions? To begin with, the depletion rate of existing fields is accelerating. Most of the giant fields on which the world now relies for the bulk of its oil supplies were discovered 30 to 60 years ago and are now reaching the end of their productive life cycles.

It used to be thought that the depletion rate of these fields was about 4% to 5% a year, but in a study to be released November 12, the International Energy Agency (IEA), an affiliate of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the club of wealthy industrialized nations), is expected to report that the decline rate is closer to 9%, an astonishingly high figure. At this rate of decline, the world's major fields will be depleted of their remaining supplies of oil relatively quickly, leaving us dependent on a constellation of smaller, less productive fields, often located in difficult to reach or unstable areas, as well as whatever new deposits the oil industry is able to locate and develop.

And this is the second big problem: Despite huge increases in the funds devoted to exploration, the oil companies are not finding giant new fields comparable to the "elephants" discovered in previous decades. Only two such fields were discovered between 1970 and 1990, and only one since -- the Kashagan field in Kazakhstan's corner of the Caspian Sea. True, the companies have discovered some large fields in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of Angola and Brazil, but these are neither on a par with the largest fields now in production, nor anywhere near as easy to bring on line. They will not be able to reverse the coming decline in global output.

Given these factors, it is clear that the global supply of oil is destined to begin contracting in the not-too-distant future, and that the global peak in production -- when it does arrive -- will be at a level much lower than previously assumed. The current global economic downturn and the sudden fall in energy prices may, for a while, mask this phenomenon, but they won't change it in any significant way.

Our excessive reliance on oil in good times and bad is made all the more problematic by the fact that, just as supplies are dwindling, global demand is expected to rise mainly because of increased consumption in China, India, and other developing nations.

As recently as 1990, the developing nations of Asia accounted for only a relatively small 10% of global oil consumption. Their economic growth has been so rapid, however, and their need for oil so voracious that they now consume about 18% of the world's supply. If current trends persist, that will rise to 27% in 2030, exceeding North American net consumption for the first time. This means -- if energy habits and present energy use don't change radically -- that Americans will be competing with Chinese and Indian consumers for every barrel of spare oil available on world markets, driving up prices and jeopardizing the health of our petroleum-dependent economy.

To make matters worse, more and more of the world's remaining oil production will be concentrated in the Middle East, Central Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. That these areas are chronically unstable is hardly accidental: many bear the scars of colonialism or are delineated by borders drawn up by the colonial powers that bear no resemblance to often fractious ethnic realities on the ground. Many also suffer from the "resource curse": the concentration of power in the hands of venal elites that seek to monopolize the collection of oil revenues by denying rights to the rest of the population, thereby inviting revolts, coups, and energy sabotage of every sort.

As it has grown more reliant on oil deliveries from these areas, the United States has attempted to enhance its energy "security" by an increasing reliance on military force, even though such efforts have largely proved ineffectual. Despite all the money and effort devoted to enforcement of what was once known as the Carter Doctrine -- which stated that the uninterrupted flow of Persian Gulf oil to the United States is a vital national interest to be protected by any means necessary, including military force -- the Persian Gulf is no more stable or peaceful today than it was in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter issued his famous decree.

Our over-reliance on oil, then, is our greatest energy vulnerability. But what are the alternatives?

The Problem with Coal

The energy source which the United States possesses in greatest abundance is coal. This country has the world's largest reserves, 247 billion metric tons, and is second only to China in using coal. In this country, coal is primarily employed to produce electricity, but it can also be converted into a diesel fuel -- known as coal-to-liquids or CTL -- to power cars and trucks. Although CTL, widely used by Germany during World War II to power its war machine, is still in its infancy in the U.S., it could conceivably be used to supplement future declining gas supplies.

When coal is burned in the conventional manner, however, it emits more climate-altering greenhouse gases than any other fossil fuel -- twice as much as natural gas and one-and-a-half times that of oil to produce the same amount of energy. As a result, any increase in our reliance on coal will lead to ever greater emissions of carbon dioxide, only accelerating the already perilous rate of global warming.

In addition, an increased U.S. reliance on coal would only flash a green light to China, India, and other countries eager to do likewise. The bottom line? Any hope of reversing the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in time to avert the most severe consequences of climate change would go out the window (possibly quite literally).

During the recent election campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain both spoke of speeding the development of "clean coal technology." In the present context, however, clean coal is a deceptive term, if not an outright misnomer. It generally refers to pollution-free coal, not to coal free of carbon emissions. Coal that would burn without damaging the climate is best referred to as climate-friendly coal, or "safe coal." At present, there are no power plants anywhere on the planet capable of burning coal in a climate-safe manner.

Right now, there is only one technology being seriously discussed that would burn coal safely: carbon capture and storage, or carbon sequestration. Under this process, powdered coal is combined with steam and turned into a gas; then the carbon is stripped away and eventually buried. This is a tricky and costly technique that has yet to be fully tested. But at the moment, it is the only foreseeable path to using coal in a climate-friendly way. President-elect Obama has spoken of his interest in this technology, but without a lot more support and investment -- no small matter in economically tough times -- it will never get the boost it deserves.

Consider the Alternatives

So what's left to satisfy our future energy needs?

Natural gas is the next biggest source and it possesses a number of advantages. Of all the fossil fuels, it releases the least amount of carbon dioxide when burned. We possess substantial, if not overwhelming, reserves of natural gas in this country. But like oil, it is a finite substance. Eventually, it, too, will peak and begin a decline of its own. Energy experts are less certain about when exactly this is likely to occur, but most see it coming a decade or so after oil's peak.

Our biggest problem with natural gas is that we are gradually running out of North American reserves and so must increasingly rely on supplies from elsewhere -- in this case, in the form of liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Fully 45% of the world's remaining reserves are, however, held by just three countries, Russia, Iran, and Qatar, while large amounts are also held by Algeria, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela. This means, of course, that we face the same geopolitical problems relying on natural gas as we do with oil.

Some say we should increase our reliance on nuclear power. Nuclear power's attraction is that, once in operation, it does not emit carbon dioxide. It does, however, raise enormous safety issues and produces toxic radioactive wastes that must be stored for thousands, or even tens of thousands, of years in ultra-safe containers -- a technological challenge that has yet to be overcome. Given these problems, the rising costs and legal problems of building new reactors have deterred all but a few utilities from considering their construction, putting distinct limits on nuclear power's capacity to overcome America's energy crisis.

By far the most attractive alternative to oil and coal is obviously renewable energy, especially wind and solar power -- much praised but inadequately supported by politicians of both parties. These need no fuel source (save the sun and wind), are never used up, and emit no carbon dioxide. They seem the perfect solution to the planet's energy and climate crises.

The full potential of wind and solar power, however, cannot be realized until at least two other hurdles are overcome: the development of efficient storage systems to collect energy when the sun and wind are strong and release it when they are not, and the construction of an expanded nationwide electrical grid to connect areas of reliable wind (especially the mountain states and high plains) and sunshine (the Southwest) with the areas of greatest need. These are bound to be costly endeavors, but until they are fully funded, wind and solar power will not be capable of replacing more than a tiny fraction of oil and coal in the nation's overall energy mix. Unfortunately, against a backdrop of bad times in a new era of "cheap" oil that will not last, the likelihood of such funding at the levels needed has declined precipitously.

Much can be said about the potential of advanced biofuels (those not reliant on food crops like corn), geothermal energy, wave power, hydrogen power, and nuclear fusion, but these all remain in the same category as wind and solar (only more so): they show a lot of potential, but without substantially more research, development, and investment, they cannot help wean us from our reliance on oil and coal.

The Challenge to be Met

If this assessment is accurate, President Obama will face a tough, if not overwhelming, challenge in attempting to get the nation's long-term energy crisis in hand. On coming into office in increasingly tough times, he will be besieged by a host of immediate crises and demands for funds. On energy, his natural inclination, given limited financial resources, will undoubtedly be to make a series of modest gestures toward "green energy independence." This coming crisis, the central one of our lifetimes and those of our children and grandchildren, cannot, unfortunately, be solved via small-scale course corrections.

Needed is a major White House-led initiative on the scale of the World War II Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb or the Apollo Moon Project. The principal goals of such an epic undertaking would have to include:

1. Reducing oil's contribution to America's total energy supply by half over the next quarter century. This would require a comprehensive program of conservation, increased development of public transport, the accelerated development of electric-powered vehicles and advanced biofuels, and other technological innovations.

2. Gradually reducing U.S. reliance on coal, unless consumed in a climate-friendly manner, as well as providing government support for the development of carbon capture and storage technology.

3. Increasing the contribution of renewable energy sources to America's total energy mix from their current 6% to at least 25%, if not significantly more, by 2030. This would require substantial public investment in new technologies and electrical power lines.

4. Demilitarizing America's reliance on imported petroleum. This means repudiating the Carter Doctrine, dismantling the vast military apparatus created since 1980 to enforce that policy, and using the resulting savings -- as much as $150 billion per year, says a new report from the National Priorities Project -- to help finance the initiatives described above.

Only by embracing such goals can President Obama hope to overcome the long-term, potentially devastating energy crisis now facing this nation.

Michael T. Klare is professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy (Metropolitan Books).
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