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Reasons the United States Needs to Get Its
Energy Act Together

Reasons To Act Now

Let's get started with the basics. Here are six reasons the United States needs to get its energy act together. There isn't much debate about these facts, but there is plenty over what to do about them.

The country is using more energy than ever. The U.S. population is growing, we're doing more driving than we did a few decades ago, and we have more energy-eating devices than ever. Just think of all the technology we've added to our lives in the last generation: computers, microwaves, DVDs, MP3 players, a cell phone for every member of the family. Since 1949, the total amount of energy used in the United States has tripled, and we're not done yet.

1 Americans are expected to consume about 25 percent more electricity over the next twenty years.

2. Other people around the world are using more energy too. According to the best estimates, global demand for energy is expected to grow by 45 percent over the next two decades.

3. And specialists who study energy supply and demand are asking some fairly scary questions about where all that energy is going to come from.

4. The Earth's population is growing, but it's not just that. Roughly a quarter of the world's people don't even have electricity yet. To improve their lives, developing countries will need a lot more energy than they have today -- 73 percent more by 2030, based on expert projections.

5. What's more, people in developing countries such as China and India are now becoming prosperous enough to want to live the way we do. They like cars and TVs and computers and warm houses filled with gadgets. Don't get us wrong; this is a good thing. People everywhere naturally want the comforts money can buy. But it also means more competition for energy, higher prices, possible shortages, and potential environmental damage on a scale we've never seen before. We're relying on forms of energy that will eventually run out. In the last 150 years or so, human beings used about 1 trillion barrels of oil. Some experts say we could use up another trillion in about thirty years.

6. There is a big debate (which we cover later) over whether and how quickly humankind is running through the Earth's supply of oil, but some of the predictions are getting uncomfortably close.

7. We can certainly look for more, and no doubt we'll find it, but some experts worry that we're rapidly using up the oil that's relatively easy to access. There's also some concern that in North America at least, the remaining natural gas supplies are in locations where it will be difficult (and costlier) to extract them.

8. As supplies get tighter, energy costs more. Energy prices tend to go up and down, and perhaps the only bright spot in a recession is that energy prices generally fall because people use less of it (factories and businesses closing, fewer people driving and traveling, etc.). But what ever the price of oil may be when you read this book, the overall trends are just not in our favor. As recently as 2004, many analysts thought oil would stay at about $30 a barrel for the next decade.

9. In 2008, the average for the year was just under $100 a barrel, even though prices fell dramatically in November and December in the economic downturn.

10. Many experts believe oil prices will start rising again when economies worldwide begin to recover and the competition for oil heats up again.

11. But it's not just oil. Prices for natural gas more than doubled between 2002 and 2008.

12. Prices for the uranium used for nuclear power also doubled between 2006 and 2008.

13. When more people want more of something, and it's not lying around all over the place, and it takes a long time to find it and put it into usable forms, prices tend to go up. Since we consume energy when we make, ship, and use everything from big-screen TVs to Pop-Tarts, the price of fuel spills over into our entire economy. The U.S. energy supply system is shaky. In 2007, the United States used about 7.5 billion barrels of oil and imported 58 percent of it.

14. Unfortunately, a fairly large portion of the world's oil reserves lie in some of its most unstable regions (like the Middle East) and in the hands of potentially unstable governments (like Nigeria and Venezuela). That means a whole host of things can go wrong -- embargoes, war, revolution, terrorist attacks on pipelines. As drivers learned after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a natural disaster that disrupts shipping and refining can upset the balance too. But it doesn't require an international crisis or an act of God to give us problems with our energy supply. Our electric power grid and oil and natural pipelines are aging. The older they get, the more they're prone to failure. Oil, coal, and gasoline -- the kinds of energy we use most -- can be harmful to the Earth and everything living on it. Burning fossil fuels such as these causes pollution and acid rain, and according to most scientists, it contributes to global warming -- at least the way we do it now. But it's crucial to make an important distinction. The United States has made good strides reducing air pollution and acid rain because of the Clean Air Act and better technology in our cars and power plants. Unfortunately, we haven't done nearly as much to reduce the emissions that contribute to global warming, so that's the next big challenge. The problem of global warming is "unequivocal," according to the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

15. It's "clear," according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

16. There's "a growing scientific consensus," according to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office.

17. ExxonMobil, which at one time supported research by climate change skeptics, now runs ads highlighting the need to address the problem.

18. Even people with lingering doubts seem to accept the main point. The grumpy but always intriguing Charles Krauthammer considers himself a global warming "agnostic," yet he says he "believes instinctively that it can't be very good to pump lots of CO2 [carbon dioxide] into the atmosphere."

19. Okay, that's it. We have way more than a quorum.*

Waiting for the Perfect Solution

So there we have it: six solid reasons to rethink the country's energy policy. Yet despite the dangers, the United States has been stuck in first gear for years now. We haven't upped domestic oil production much because of environmental concerns. We haven't moved vigorously to develop alternatives because we frittered away our time arguing about whether global warming is real. We invest in the scientific research and technology to help solve our energy problems only when energy prices get high. Since we're so fond of big cars and big houses filled with labor-saving devices, we've barely scratched the surface on conserving the energy we do have. We've spent several decades just sitting around waiting for some perfect, cost-free, "please don't ruffle our feathers" solution to come down from the sky.

That hasn't happened yet, and it won't. But there are lots of reasonable options most of us can live with. There are lots of innovations that could help us down the road if we get to work on them now. This is going to be a long battle, though, and what happens in Washington, D.C., is just the beginning. What we need is a state-by-state, power-plant-by-power-plant, business-by-business, car-by-car, house-by-house rethink.

The United States desperately needs to get a move on in making these choices, so that's what this book is about: laying out the challenge and explaining the options. Let's have the debate, make some decisions, and get on with it.

We started the chapter with a little bit from the Rolling Stones: "You can't always get what you want." If you've got Mick on the brain now, maybe you remember that the song goes on to say that you might be able to "get what you need." Not such a bad description of our situation right now. If the United States can get its act together on a reasonable, longterm energy policy, we may well be able to get what we need. If not, let's hope the next song that comes to mind isn't "Paint It Black."

Excerpt from Who Turned Out the Lights?: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson


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