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The United States Is Facing A Huge, Complicated, And Scary Energy Problem

You can't always get what you want.
--The Rolling Stones

We don't know exactly what the price of gas will be by the time you have this book in your hands, but whether it's high, low, or somewhere in between, the fact of the matter is just the same: this country faces a huge, complicated, and scary energy problem.

Not only is it huge, complicated, and scary, it's daunting for most of us because it's nearly impossible to understand unless you're some kind of full-time energy wonk. We all recognize symptoms such as soaring gas prices and pricey home heating oil. But when it comes to the disease -- what's causing the country's energy problems and how to cure them -- that's another story entirely. Confused R Us is more like it.

It's not that the information isn't out there. Type "energy policy" into Google, and you'll get tens of millions of results. Some of the stuff is biased and manipulative, and some of it is downright harebrained. But there is plenty of information from smart, responsible, fair-minded experts who really know this issue and want to help. Unfortunately, when most of them talk, they might as well be speaking Greek (or Urdu or Basque). All of a sudden, it's "peak oil" and "strategic reserves" and what's happening at the New York Mercantile Exchange. Want to know about possible solutions? Prepare yourself for treatises on "carbon sequestration," "hydraulic fracturing," and the promise of "photovoltaic cells." Not only is it hard to understand, it can often be incredibly boring. Say the words "energy policy" often enough, and you could undermine the entire profit structure of the sleeping pill industry (not to mention upsetting the little counting sheep from the mattress company).

Even so, we're convinced that the vast majority of Americans do want to know what can be done to ensure that the country has safe, reliable energy at nonstratospheric prices. Nearly all of us want to protect the planet, the economy, and our way of life. But sorting out the country's choices is tough -- almost as tough as facing up to them.

Pulling the Strands of the Problem Together

The first step is to pull the far-flung pieces of this debate together in one place. There's the energy issue with its assorted disputes over OPEC, oil company profits, speculation in the energy markets, and how to reduce the country's dependence on imported oil. Then there's the environmental debate on how to reduce the damage human beings do to the planet -- global warming, carbon dioxide emissions, carbon footprints, pollution, that sort of thing. And finally, there's the economic fallout when the competition for energy heats up and supplies start getting tight. That's what happened in the first half of 2008: skyrocketing gas prices, major airlines in financial free fall, and businesses of all sorts hurting because families have to spend more on gas and electricity and have less money left to spend on everything else.

These three issues -- energy, environment, and the economy -- are all intertwined, and some experts say the country could at some point get itself trapped in a "perfect storm" with all three problems coming to a head at once. In the movie The Perfect Storm, George Clooney sailed his fishing boat right into "the storm of the century" in the North Atlantic. It was spine-tingling to watch, but he killed himself and his crew doing it.

For the United States, sailing right into the triple threat we face on energy is an equally bad idea. Unfortunately, we've been backing ourselves into an energy corner for a good forty years or more, and the country simply has to start making some responsible decisions beginning right now.

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

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