Energy independence requires cooperation

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:46 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

Popular legend has it that while Rome burned, the Emperor Nero played the violin, revealing a lack of empathy for his empire and its people. Analogous to our current policy on energy exploration and production, the preoccupation with the trivial and irresponsible in the midst of crisis is the acme of foolishness.

We have or should have known for decades the folly of dependence upon foreign oil as our primary source of energy — we were served a wake-up call to that effect in the early 1970s and chose largely to ignore it, hoping it would go away. Those of us who remember the gas lines, the odd and even refueling days and the fear that the petroleum road had reached its terminus were mollified upon learning that once reaching a dollar a gallon, gasoline was once again plentiful.

The ensuing years have been marked by unconscionable inactivity, fostered by a combination of complacency and an overabundance of barriers erected by environmental activists, not in my back yard proponents, earth-first green worshipers and, more recently, global warming alarmists. Increasingly, our quest for energy independence is being held hostage by the likes of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Committee Against Oil Exploration — organizations which, along with others, appear to place saving the “fragile” ecosystem and animals above that of the humans who also happen to inhabit the land.

Having spent my formative years involved in agriculture, hunting, fishing and related outdoor pursuits, I am aware of and believe in the importance of protecting the environment, conserving resources and maintaining habitat for wildlife. However, the cacophony generated by these organizations and their far left supporting cast over the possible demise of some obscure weed or flower, snail darter, spotted owl, tree rat or mushroom because of cultivation or exploration is beyond reason. The ecology is cyclical — species become extinct naturally. Had endangered species acts been enacted at the beginning of civilization, we would be up to our elbows in saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths.

The development of alternate energy sources is necessary — wind, solar power and other innovations are vital to our future. Nevertheless, the technology is not nearly advanced enough to replace or even ease our dependence on petroleum peculiar energy. There are avenues which, if allowed to go forward, would hasten our energy independence — namely, nuclear power, drilling in currently taboo areas and development of a process to recover an estimated 1.8 trillion barrels of oil from shale deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

Nuclear power is undeniably the most carbon free and efficient producer of electricity yet, because of fears for the environment and safety, the not-in-my-backyard-syndrome has blocked the building of any new facilities in the U.S. since 1979. Actually, nuclear power boasts an enviable safety record and the waste is recyclable. For example, 75 percent of France’s electricity is generated by nuclear power with no hint of disaster.

We have the resources to become energy independent; however, we have dragged our collective feet for too long. The technology is also available to avoid desecration of “pristine” land and sea areas in drilling for oil. A nation that can mobilize to produce and deliver the wherewithal to save the world from tyranny in the 1940s and land a man on the moon can surely harness the oil, shale, coal and natural gas deposits that are available.

Energy independence requires the cooperation of all three branches of federal government, the governments of the states involved and that of the political parties — a process which is at least 10 years behind. Environmental issues must be resolved by reason and logic — the real or imagined ecological damage weighed against the very economics and habitability needed for our survival as a nation.

Neither reason nor logic were in evidence in the May 21 Judiciary Committee hearing at which senators lined up to pummel and bully the executives of five major oil companies over “windfall” profits. More intent on self righteous and pompous grandstanding for their constituents, they ignored conveniently that Congress has been the principal obstruction for petroleum exploration.

It is a bit late to haggle over “Who shot John” — it is time to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the offshore Atlantic and Pacific areas and the Green River shale region for exploration, while also going forward with new construction for nuclear power. If we can present a united front indicating the U.S. is serious about energy independence, the world price of oil will come down.

Karl Miller of Columbia retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. E-mail him at

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Mark Foecking May 27, 2008 | 11:46 a.m.

Our inactivity on this problem is because we feel like we have choices. We feel that we can choose to leave the oil in the ANWR, or do without a nuclear plant because we are afraid of it.

(BTW, the only way we would ever be energy independent is through a massive conservation effort, which would reduce our standard of living significantly. But we can start to produce domestic sources of energy that we are currently neglecting)

The lights are still on 24/7. We can get all the gas we want if we are willing to pay for it. Food is still on the shelves of every supermarket in the country. But this bounty is not guaranteed forever. There will be less and less oil available on the world markets in the future, and now is the time for us to make sure we have the energy we need to keep our society functional, as well as build alternatives to fossil fuels. Our abundance has lulled us into a sense of security which we can no longer afford.


(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble May 27, 2008 | 1:48 p.m.

Some good ideas here, but also some faulty information. Only a portion of nuclear waste is recyclable, and the majority of it is highly dangerous and scientists really don't have any idea what to do with it other than store it and hope that the storage works 100% flawlessly. For thousands of years. High reward, high risk, and not really sustainable to the scale that we would need in this country (it would be a much greater scale than any Eurpoean use, for example).

The idea of opening up massive new Alaskan & coastal areas to oil drilling is also a bit of a red herring, as the projected usable result would only be a drop in the bucket of our needs, and would take many years to successfully retrieve--if the oil exploration proved successful, which is not certain. Mediocre reward, certain ecological loss.

Ben Stein's been pushing the same nuclear & drilling ideas pretty heavily lately (as has been fairly prominently heard in recent media), but he's missing the same points.

Mark's comment above hits an important point. So long as we keep creating capacity, we'll put off the hard choices. Domestic oil would only delay the inevitable, and only for a little while.

True energy independence has to hinge on large-scale solar, wind, and water power (along with conservation). Those technologies, however, aren't as easily centralized and monopolized as oil and coal, so we're seeing a lot of foot-dragging or outright resistance from our own energy companies. If we think that foreign energy monopolies are the only reason we're in a bind, we're being short-sighted.

We have everything we need for true energy independence right down to the individual level. But do we have the national character to pursue it? Or will we take the easy way yet again, and let our children or grandchildren deal with it? What will our legacy be?

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller May 28, 2008 | 9:34 a.m.

Author's comment:
While conservation is important, it only serves to delay the inevitable. There is but one way to achieve energy independence--through exploration and creation.

The claim that only a portion of nuclear waste is recyclable and the majority is too dangerous and beyond the capability of scientists is highly innacurate. The residue from reprossessed nuclear waste is rather benign-all of the plutonium and and uranium are removed, rendering it virtually harmless. The Carter administration decided against reprocessing in the hope that it would somehow discourage nuclear proliferation. Thus far, no other country has followed suit as the economic benefits of reprocessing are so great, accordingly we are woefully remiss in not recycling.

The Reagan and Elder Bush administrations recommended recycling but the politics of the same environmental extremists and green religionists who are blocking drilling today prevailed. Nuclear power is available and safe and fossil fuels are abundant--science and skill must be allowed to triumph over emotion and superstition.
J Karl

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble May 28, 2008 | 11:03 a.m.

I agree that science and skill are key to energy creation (and hope that religious-based overconsumption of resources is part of the "superstition" Miller wants to see overcome by science). But I'd much rather see those applied to the most abundant and clean sources of energy available on the planet--solar, wind, and water. The amount of usable solar energy alone that impacts the earth every day is staggering, and completely wasted.

When we consider the very real impacts on people and ecology that fossil fuels have--the ill effects which all of us, including the columnist, are completely free from--to be a price we're not ready to pay, then we'll truly be a society we can be proud of. Until then, the plans Miller describes are all "someone else's backyard" plans.

Or is Miller willing to have nuclear waste stored in his backyard?

(Report Comment)
Arthur Collins May 28, 2008 | 3:15 p.m.

Comment on Kevin Gamble's Comment:

Solar and wind are abundant, as he indicates. Hydro (i.e.
'water') requires major capital investment in dams, which
have their own ecological problems, such as CO2 emissions
from drowned biomass. The problems with solar and wind
are that a) they gobble up real estate which could be used
for other purposes, such as food production, and b) because
of their diffuse (low concentration /area), they are in the
range of 20-30 cents / Kilowatt hour, versus 2-5 cents /KWH
for nuclear.

Therefore, strong emphasis on wind, solar and hydro, is in
reality an empahsis on fossil fuels, and 'resource wars'
and body bags for assuring fossil fuel supplies, as we
see by turning on the nightly TV news. In this sense,
renewables have not been able to 'hack it' for the last
20 years, and are not likely to do so for a long time.

Nuclear is technically demanding, and has little tolerance
for stupid mistakes, deferred maintenance due to politics
in funding or selecting personnel, or incompetent
engineers or managers. It requires almost inhuman,
military discipline to be safe. The Dept. of Energy has
demonstrated all of the above, including incompetence in
waste disposal.

Nevertheless, it is the 'least worst' option, as the
French have demonstrated. I would suggest to the
environmentalists that it is not enough to be against
something you fear (nuclear), or for something that is
currently impractical (solar). You have to be for a safe,
cost-effective based on current technology (nuclear).

The current gridlock and national paralysis only guarrantees
more 'blood for oil', more resource wars, and more body
bags. Such is the state of a cruel world. Nuclear is
being developed around the world, we are now 2 reactor
generations behind current technology. High tech industries
are fleeing California, due to lack of 24/7, reliable,
cost-effective energy. At the same time, the California
population demands plug-in hybrid electric cars, which will
be powered by imported electricity generated by coal-fired
and nuclear power plants in surrounding states.

Hail Environmentalists! A Nuclear Engineer Salutes You!
Enjoy you irrationality and fear. It will be expensive,
of this you may rest assured.

Regards, Art Collins
Retired Aerospace and Nuclear Engineer
(Of Course!)

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking May 28, 2008 | 4:02 p.m.

I appreciate your comments Kevin, but I think you may have misconstrued one of them.

If we were having blackouts every day, and losing the food in our refrigerators on a regular basis, and not being able to work because power was so unreliable, then we'd be scrambling for every technology we had to keep the lights on. Sure, we'd waste a lot less power, and we need to conserve anyway, but keeping electrical service going in the future will require investments beyond what we can buy in renewables.

Renewables are great if you have them, and they are very fast growing industries. They are just not growing fast enough. We will have to supplant renewable generation with conventional generation in the future, because more and more of our transportation will have to be electrified due to the cost and availability of oil.

I would rather see additional conventional apacity as nuclear rather than fossil for several reasons. One huge one is the ability to store a lot of fuel on site, in case delivery of fuel becomes a problem due to oil shortages. Another is reduction in CO2 emissions.

Solar thermal also has great potential, but we have to build a lot of new transmission lines to use it. All of these technologies can help, ands we should use them all where they are the most appropriate.


(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller May 28, 2008 | 9:16 p.m.

Kevin--Your proclivity for attacking the messenger rather than attempting to read and comprehend the message is cute but hardly productive.

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble May 29, 2008 | 12:56 a.m.

You've just outdone me in that regard, sir!

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble May 29, 2008 | 1:19 a.m.

Thanks for the reply, Art! I appreciate your expert perspective. I can't get around my distrust of nuclear for now, but you may be right. You (and Mr. Miller) are certainly right about all the advantages it has over fossil fuels.

A couple small points: with hydro power, I was thinking less of dams than the kind of coastal turbines that are starting to get wide use in Europe. Much less damaging than dams or coastal oil drilling, and showing promising energy returns so far. Not without issues, but that's where the "science and skill" can be applied, eh? :)

With solar, you're right that an enormous surface area is needed. What I'm hoping is that more use can be made of the already incredibly vast (and wasted) space we already have on cement-covered areas and building roofs around the country. Doesn't solve the issues you rightly mention, but there's an increasing adoption of multi-use approaches which can help us get energy from space that's currently only using it or covering up natural space that would be better processing it.

Good point about the food-producing-land concerns. I wish we were making better use of that now, instead of outsourcing so much of our food production overseas and using our own land for things like ethanol and large-scale specialized crops--the waste and pollution of industrial monoculture is a disaster. Another area in which we're throwing away our independence.

The energy question is a huge nut to crack, but hopefully the rush for short-sighted ecologically destructive solutions won't keep us from also developing the renewable alternatives at the same rate. If we can truly have cooperation across the spectrum, without dismissing the inherent value of the ecosystem, what strides we could make!

And in a small bit of the spirit of cooperation, I'll say that though I can be pretty hard on ol' J. Karl, he and I and the others here do seem to agree on a lot of what needs to be done and looked into, even if we all come to the table with different priorities--and emotions. I hope that as a society, even if we disagree, we can have enough power of imagination to try for a really remarkable solution instead of just the most readily available one. That will take cooperation across all our borders, outside and in.

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