Sunday, June 20, 2010

Out Energy Future - Part I

Our Energy Future

As the public becomes accustomed to the horrifying facts of massive environmental destruction still continuing in the Gulf of Mexico, questions are beginning to arise about the future. What must we do to prevent such disasters in the future?

Many people are thinking of punishing British Petroleum. A few voices have been heard suggesting that British Petroleum be shut down as a clear warning to other energy companies that oil spills of this magnitude are unacceptable. But the truth is that accidents will happen and that the profits of oil companies are so enormous that even draconian punishments will not deter the profit seekers.

After a series of deadly mining accidents in the past year, we know that coal is no more acceptable than oil as a source of energy. One might be tempted to think that we should reduce consumption of oil by relying on  atomic energy. But atomic power plants have as their by-product radioactive waste that is intensely dangerous to humans for another 200,000 years. No one knows what to do with that waste.

Nothing less than a drastic reduction of our energy consumption will save us from an environmental degradation due to major accidents as well as to the continuing and accelerating threat of global warming.

Here is what we need to do: live in small houses, drive smaller cars, walk more, wear more sweaters in the winter. We need to travel less, give up plastic bags.

But that’s just the beginning. Think of all the oil and gas used by our military driving Hummers and tanks. Reduced energy use will require a reduction in the military. Think of all the artificial fertilizer producing corn and soybeans all over the world. The implications of reducing energy use in the production of food are inevitable but are not at all clear at present.

The oil companies and, more generally the energy industry -- the drilling companies, the oil and gas transport companies, the fertilizer companies, etc. -- are going to resist any efforts along these lines with their accustomed tenacity. 20 years ago Exxon spilled enormous amounts of oil from the Exxon Valdiz. A jury assessed punitive damages of $5 billion. Very recently -- 20 years later -- the company has reduced that $5 billion damage to 1 billion. (No one is telling how much they spent on their lawyers in this fight.) Any choices we make will be resisted fiercely by the energy sector. At present, large companies have disproportionate political power. (The Supreme Court has just expanded that power.) We will not be able to become less energy dependent if we do not take back political power from the large corporations.

In the end, nothing short of a serious reduction of our military, a serious transformation of how we grow food, and, most importantly, the restoration of the power of the people over the power of big companies will save us from the future energy disasters and global warming.