Dan Svedarsky, Published December 08 2012
Letter: The ‘world’ might not be so braveI read with interest the Nov. 17 Forum editorial on “A brave new world of energy.” Energy has such a pervasive influence on our present and future modern society that it deserves our vigilant attention. The tone of the editorial was decidedly optimistic and suggests an attitude of, “Put ’er to the floor, boys, good times are here again.” (“Americans might be in for an era of abundant and relatively cheap fuels, and that will translate into good news for families, businesses and, because of historic revenues, governments.”)
I would suggest that we add a couple of caveats to this important discussion: peak oil, sustainability, energy efficiency, climate implications and the dimension of time.
Peak oil: On March 8, 1956, petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert took the stage in San Antonio at a meeting of the American Petroleum Institute and delivered a message that many in the audience (including his Shell Oil employer) did not want to hear. Hubbert explained that when using a limited resource, its extraction follows a bell-shaped curve. At some point, 50 percent will have been used, and then the curve bends downward. Thus began the expression “peak oil” and he accurately predicted that we would peak in extracting domestic oil supplies in 1970. Like a bin of grain that is being emptied, at some point 50 percent will be gone and then you start on the rest. Extracting fossil fuels follows the same path: The easy-to-get resources will be accessed first, and then we drill deep and extract in novel ways (fracking shale rock, mining tar sands). Occasionally, as in the spill from the 35,050-foot deep Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf, we pay a severe environmental price if something goes wrong.
Sustainability: The International Energy Agency source cited by The Forum emphasized in bold print early in the report that, “Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path.” There is only so much fossil fuel, and when it’s gone, it’s gone; so we need to use it judiciously and plan for renewable substitutes. Sustainability implies using resources in such a way that our kids and their kids and their kids will be able to meet their needs, too. It’s the kind and responsible thing to do.
Energy efficiency: While the editorial did not emphasize the importance of energy efficiency in our energy challenges, the EIA source did, in bold. Energy efficiency is widely recognized as a key option in the hands of policymakers, but current efforts fall well short of tapping its full economic potential. Energy efficiency is getting the same job done while using less energy. It’s through efficiency measures that we stretch the supply of limited resources and save money in the process. Clear examples include improving vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, energy-efficient design of buildings, smart design of communities with mass transit and district heating that saves energy and lessens the dependency on the automobile, and energy-smart design of machines and manufacturing processes.
Climate implications: When we release greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) from geologic deposits of fossil fuels, we add to the driving forces of climate change and intensification. This contrasts with using renewable energy resources.
Time: How long do we plan to stay on an earth with limited resources? What is our planning horizon? From the editorial: “energy independent by 2025” (and then what?), “oil and gas drilling and production are expected to continue at a brisk pace for at least 30 years” (and then what?), “the IEA report suggests there is no North American slowdown on the horizon.” (Really, and how long is a horizon?)
I applaud The Forum for engaging in this important discussion, since the future will, for sure, be a “new world.” But will we be brave enough to take the long-term view and take advantage of these increased fossil fuel resources to buy valuable time as we transition to a future powered by renewable energy sources, invest in green infrastructure, apply smart design to communities and modify behavioral patterns to emphasize a conservation ethic in how we live our lives?
Svedarsky, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Sustainability, University of Minnesota Crookston.