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Ten Myths About Energy
1. We Can Achieve Energy Independence.
2. If Gas Prices Rise Abruptly, It Must Be Due to an Oil Company Conspiracy.
3. Global Warming Is a Complete Hoax.
4. Nuclear Plants Are Just as Unsafe as They Were at Three Mile Island.
5. Renewable Energy Is Universally Popular and Completely Safe for the Environment.
6. We Are Entering an Age of Natural Gas That Will Follow the Ages of Coal and Oil, and It Will Largely Solve Our Energy Problems.
7. Raising CAFE Standards 30% Will Produce a 30% Reduction in Oil Consumption.
8. Electrical Transmission Lines Cause Cancer.
9. All the Government Has to Do Is Choose the Right Energy Technology and Subsidize It.
10. All We Need Is a New Manhattan Project to Solve Our Energy Problems.
As secretary of energy, I found that energy is a very complicated topic—both from a scientific and a political point of view. For instance, someone might suggest that to save energy it makes sense to launch a national campaign to get everyone to turn off their computers when they’re not using them. Sounds easy. But is it? For instance, how do we know turning off computers is going to save electricity? Some people say computers use more electricity because there’s a big burst of electrical consumption when they are turned on. Well, maybe we should design a computer that doesn’t have that burst. Is that possible? No, wait a minute, maybe the best strategy is a sleep mode where the computer draws very little energy when not being used. Hasn’t someone already invented that? Yes, they have, and it works well. But maybe we should be doing the same thing for DVD players. You see how things can get complicated.
It gets even more complicated because the process of decision making is constantly distorted by politics. Some individual or group is always certain they have the only solution to the energy problem. Senators from coal states are morally certain the answer is coal. Various pundits are certain that global warming is a hoax and that human beings cannot possibly do anything so harmful to the environment. Environmental groups believe with their heart and soul that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will mean desecrating the crown jewels of America’s natural heritage, while the senator from Alaska says drilling is the way to wean us off foreign oil.
All this is part of the deliberative process. That’s what democracy is about. But while I was perfectly willing to accept input from advocacy groups and congressional representatives, I soon learned that there are certain energy arguments and assertions that just aren’t true. It is oft en said, “It’s not the things people don’t know that get them into trouble but the things they know that just ain’t so.” From my perspective, it became clear that the first step in understanding our energy problems is to recognize that much of the accepted wisdom about energy simply isn’t true, and that the propagation of these myths has proved fatal to the development of good energy policy. For that reason, I’m going to start this book by briefly outlining ten myths about energy that we have to clear away before we begin the real business of trying to figure out how to solve our energy problems. In part these myths have been responsible for the failure of our energy policy efforts to date, as will be discussed in later chapters. Thus, an examination of energy mythology is in order. So here we go.
Myth 1. We Can Achieve Energy Independence.
As late as the 2008 presidential campaign, candidates were still running around suggesting that America can achieve energy independence. This is a myth that must be put to rest once and for all. We aren’t ever going to be able to provide ourselves with all our energy. We live in an interdependent world and we might as well get used to it. The key consideration is that America’s oil production peaked in 1970. At that point in high-demand periods we were producing 10 million barrels a day and consuming around 14 million. Today we import over 60% of our oil.
We may be able to cut down on some of that de pen den cy or shift it to nations we aren’t so worried about. But we’re never again going to produce all of our own oil, and we’re not going to be replacing that oil with any other fuel or technology in the foreseeable future.
Congressmen on both sides of the aisle seem to have a hard time accepting that. Free-market enthusiasts promise that high prices will automatically call forth new production. Technology enthusiasts say we can come up with some new discovery that will solve the problem at a stroke. Environmentalists say all we have to do is mandate greater conservation and start phasing in renewable energy.
There is some potential in all these approaches, but together they don’t add up. There is only so much oil in the ground. Some older wells in Texas are now pumping almost all water. Enhanced recovery methods may force out a little more of this oil, but domestic production will never supply the nation the way it did in the 1950s. Likewise, mandated standards may give cars greater gas mileage but they cannot guarantee that people will buy these cars or, when they do, that they won’t just drive them more and use the same amount of fuel. Conservation and efficiency measures can slow the rate at which our energy consumption increases year to year, but they can rarely, if ever, produce an overall decline in energy use. Population increases and growing affluence cancel them out.
In the long, long run gasoline-powered cars may be replaced by some completely new fleet running on electricity or hydrogen, but these vehicles would require building a whole new infrastructure to deliver the fuels to consumers. That construction is a long way off, and may never happen. For the present we had best face facts. We are dependent on the rest of the world for much of our oil and will be for a long time to come.
Myth 2. If Gas Prices Rise Abruptly, It Must Be Due to an Oil Company Conspiracy.
Every time the price of gasoline spiked while I was secretary, as certain as the dawn follows the night, the phones rang off the hook at the Department of Energy, particularly at my desk, asking why I wasn’t doing something about it. With each run-up in price, congressmen and senators of both parties would call demanding I take action. The suggested actions were usually absurd.
Republicans, supposedly the party of business, oft en wanted investigations into the energy companies for price gouging. Democrats, supposedly the party of conservation, wanted to slash the federal gas tax or open up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) so that people could go on consuming at their accustomed level. I especially appreciated the calls from members of Congress who opposed drilling off shore and in Alaska. Now they wanted those oil companies to start producing oil—pronto! They never understood there might be a connection.
Having served in the Senate for six years, I understand the need to posture during a crisis in order to create the impression that you are doing something for the folks back home. But these guys were always over the top. They couldn’t even admit in private that you can’t just summon resources out of thin air.
The simple fact is that the price of gasoline is only now catching up to the overall rate of inflation over the last quarter century. As I like to say to audiences, “Name one other liquid that sells for less than three dollars a gallon!” Even milk doesn’t sell that cheaply in a lot of places. Americans will pay more for boutique water and gourmet coffee, for liquid plumber, for just about any other fluid you can mention, without complaint. Somehow, though, we have come to believe that the price of gasoline is constitutionally guaranteed to remain below $3 a gallon no matter what happens in other corners of the world.
Think what it takes to provide you with a gallon of gasoline. First somebody has to go out and discover oil through the always chancy process of exploration. Then there is the cost of extracting it from a mile or two beneath the ground in some remote corner of the globe or even under the ocean floor. Then the product has to travel by pipeline to be loaded onto a vessel and carried oft en thousands of miles across the ocean to a U.S. port or via miles of pipeline. After off-loading, the oil then moves to a refinery where it is blended to some very high specification of gasoline mandated by federal or state law. All along the route here, each player is collecting a piece of the action. Finally the end product is trucked to your part of the world and sold by some guy in your neighborhood who is also trying to scrape out a living. Tack on the 18.4¢ per gallon in federal taxes plus an average of 28.6¢ in state taxes and it seems a miracle that we’re paying less than $3 a gallon. But if it jumps above $3 because of a refinery fire, pipeline explosion, or outbreak of a civil war somewhere, it’s time to call in the FBI to investigate oil companies or gas station owners.
Conspiracy theories don’t get us anywhere. The way to bring down energy prices is to increase our production or decrease our consumption, or—better yet—do both.
Myth 3. Global Warming Is a Complete Hoax.
While we’re on the subject of conspiracy theories, let’s look at climate change. The myth in some quarters is that it’s all a hoax dreamed up by environmentalists who want us to go back to living in the Stone Age. Sure, there has been some exaggeration and the “Climategate” revelations of apparent collusion between some climate researchers to exaggerate their data in late 2009 has further muddied the waters. While there are still doubts about the seriousness of the consequences, the thesis that burning fossil fuels will have an effect on our climate has to be factored into any energy equation.
First, it’s unrealistic to think that we can ever know with absolute certainty that global warming is really happening. The standards for scientific proof are very strict. You need an experimental object and a “control,” which is identical in all ways. Then you subject the two to different conditions. If a difference in outcome occurs, then you have a measurable effect. Think about it. Where are we going to get a “control” to compare what is currently happening on the earth? You’d need another identical planet, wouldn’t you? You’d also have to have precise control over the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in order to predict what would happen on earth in eighty or so years. Obviously, that’s not going to happen.
Instead, scientists have tried to predict what will happen by creating computer models. These models are limited and are always going to be in dispute. We will always be working with partial knowledge. No one questions that burning fossil fuels is raising the level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. Nor is there any resonable argument over whether the earth’s temperature has risen over the past three decades. The question is: Are the two related?
Given this uncertainty, the issue is whether we should try to do anything about it. I think the answer is yes. There are plenty of reasons to think that burning fossil fuels may eventually affect the earth’s climate and plenty of reasons to be reducing our consumption of fossil fuels anyway. Conventional coal power causes an estimated 24,000 lung-disease deaths a year through its particulate matter and sulfur dioxides. It’s worth doing something about them. Furthermore, any effort to control carbon emissions will nudge us toward other technologies and reduce our imports. Our oil supplies are always going to be at risk, so there’s plenty of reason to explore electric or hydrogen cars. All these factors come as a bonus to any effort to control green house gases.
Some global warming advocates may be overstating their case, some may be over the top, and some may be attempting to use warming as an excuse to advance a political agenda. But the notion that all the scientific evidence suggesting the potential seriousness of CO2 emissions is a hoax is untenable.
Myth 4. Nuclear Plants Are Just as Unsafe as They Were at Three Mile Island.
Probably nothing had a more chilling impact on nuclear power in America than the events that took place in 1979. On March 16, Hollywood released the movie The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas, which depicted the near meltdown of a nuclear reactor. On March 28, in a “life imitates art” moment, Unit 2 of Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear facility experienced a partial core meltdown that constituted the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history. Thirty years later critics still cite Three Mile Island to fight new nuclear plant builds.
That a great deal has changed since 1979 goes without saying as a contemporary viewing of The China Syndrome reveals. Fonda plays a TV reporter relegated to covering silly human interest stories by her L.A. station. In her first appearance on screen we see her doing a feature piece in which she unveils an exciting new cultural phenomenon: the singing telegram. That’s just the start. Later we see ads for a brand new house hold product—the microwave oven. Meanwhile, Fonda’s camera crew uses reel-to-reel tape recorders and movie film to do its work. No one has a cell phone and the characters use pay phones, which are in abundant supply. Importantly, when Fonda sits down at her desk in the newsroom, she writes her script on a manual typewriter because newsrooms didn’t have PCs or word processors in those days. In 1979 correcting IBM Selectric typewriters were replacing “white-out” as the hottest new type of information technology. Just as 1979 newsrooms weren’t very high tech in comparison to their counterparts today, neither were nuclear power facilities.
We’ve come a long way since 1979 in learning how to build and operate nuclear reactors. Although few people realize it, half our fleet of 104 reactors was not completed until after Three Mile Island. Safety features improved a lot over that period. Then in the 1990s a group of new “merchant” energy companies emerged that began buying up reactors and running them better. They’ve made tremendous improvements in performance and safety records—and learned to run them very profitably at the same time. That’s why they want to build more. Added to that is the experience gained in France and Japan, which never stopped building. In fact, three of the world’s four largest nuclear companies are foreign owned, and America’s only entry, General Electric, now does virtually all its nuclear work in partnership with the Japa nese firm Hitachi. Much of the experience in building and operating nuclear reactors is now coming from abroad.
The nuclear landscape has changed drastically since 1979, yet both in Congress and the media, critics of nuclear energy talk as if nothing has changed. This would be like having a discussion about long-distance telephone calls without taking into account telephone deregulation, cell phones, satellites, wireless communication, fiber optics, the Internet, and all the other things that have happened in the last thirty years. We would never consider having an outdated discussion on any other subject. Yet with nuclear power it is somehow routine.
At the time of Three Mile Island, many people who had trained to be plant managers had little more than a high school education. The assumption was that the engineers who designed the reactors were such geniuses that they could build them so nothing could go wrong. This turned out to be a big mistake. Although research had proved it by then, somehow the nuclear industry hadn’t gotten the message that human error is the main cause of most industrial accidents. Thus, when a small valve got stuck in the Three Mile Island reactor, the automatic safety systems worked fine. The problem was that because the poorly prepared operators were working in a poorly designed control room, they overrode the safety mechanisms and caused a meltdown.
The professionalism that goes into running reactors today is light-years ahead. The whole industry is structured completely differently. Now an operator has to study the technology intensively for two years before he can even touch the controls in a nuclear operating room. Before the Three Mile Island incident different utilities owning and operating nuclear reactors barely talked to each other. The valve that failed at Three Mile Island had failed nine times before at other reactors, yet the manufacturer had hushed things up. Today the nuclear industry shares so much information it must constantly make sure it is not violating antitrust laws. If the smallest glitch occurs in a reactor somewhere, the entire industry knows about it within a matter of hours. Special emergency teams are ready to be dispatched anywhere in the country at a moment’s notice to deal with malfunctions.
That’s why the nuclear industry now sets records every year for safety and reliability. In the old days, generating stations were up and running about 60% of the time and some ran less because they were constantly having safety problems. Today the nation’s fleet of 104 reactors is operating 90% of the time. Reactors now run for almost two years straight without shutting down. From 1978 to 1987 there were twenty-three reactor shutdowns of over a year because of equipment and safety problems. From 1988 to 1997 there were twenty-six. Since 1997 there has been only one. The transformation of the nuclear industry is one of the great untold stories of the past decade.
For all these reasons, I don’t have any hesitation in saying it’s time we should build more nuclear plants.
Myth 5: Renewable Energy Is Universally Popular and Completely Safe for the Environment.
At the U.S. Department of Energy, most announcements tend to be unpopular. As secretary, for example, I had the dubious distinction of releasing the weekly information on the average price of gasoline in the United States. Since prices were usually on the upswing, I was generally in the media telling Americans how much more they were going to pay for gas. It’s not the best way to enhance one’s popularity. I also had to issue reports on security failures at our nuclear weapons labs, increases in the amount of our oil imports, and a wide variety of other rather negative news.
One day, though, we had a good news story. We were going to increase the expenditures for wind energy research. I figured this was perhaps the only action we might take that would be universally well received. How wrong I was! The very next night, at a charity dinner, I found myself cornered by a lobbyist for one of the animal rights organizations. His group was deeply concerned that birds and bats have a tendency to fly into large windmill blades. Animal rights groups felt our bud get increase would add to the slaughter. It turned out renewable sources aren’t without their detractors as well.
Excerpted from Lights Out! by Spencer Abraham.
Copyright © 2010 by Spencer Abraham.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.