Can US Learn from Past?
War brings focus to oil alternatives
Here are a few excerpts from a Reuters news article on energy independence.
by Manuela BadawyWorld oil prices have temporarily slumped 40 percent since mid-September, with U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude touching a new low of $17.15 per barrel since June 1999.
Still, a gnawing unease over instability in the Islamic world has revived long-dormant debate over why America is so slow to embrace new energy sources and conservation programs.
While the war against Afghanistan has failed to trigger significant turmoil in Arab oil-producing countries, the events of the past two months have sparked a sense of deja vu among energy industry experts.
"If we can reduce our dependence on oil, and our need to go the extra mile in going along with some of the things that repressive regimes do, we would be a lot better off," James Woolsey, a former CIA director and now a Washington attorney, told Reuters. "But to get that kind of independence we have got to be not so dependent on their oil."
The plan to reduce foreign-oil dependence has three main aspects First, aggressive conservation measures; second, the development of alternative energy sources like wind, solar, bio-fuels and hydrogen; third, drilling of new domestic oil wells, notably in Alaska.
"Diversification is the key to energy security in this country, that is relying on different source of energy," said U.S. Department of Energy's spokeswoman Jill Shroeder. "The president has initiatives not only in solar, wind, biomass and geothermal but also in oil, by drilling in the Artic refuge in order to get more energy independence."
The United States has spent over $10 billion in the last 15 years on renewable energy, research and development, the official added.
But while the Bush administration has made moves in these three areas, critics fault the leadership in Washington for stressing the temporary expedient -- new drilling -- far too much and for failing to grasp that seriously embracing conservation and alternative energy could cut U.S. oil consumption by a third within 15 years.
A GROWING HABIT
In the period immediately after the oil shocks of the 1970s, the country began to initiate much tighter controls on energy use. But in the past four years, U.S. reliance on foreign supply has rocketed, rising by 11 percentage points to 60 percent of the 20 million barrels of oil it now guzzles a day after nearly a decade of robust economic growth.
The biggest concern when it comes to foreign oil, say energy and national security experts, has been focused in recent recent weeks focused on Saudi Arabia. That country, home to the holiest site in Islam, presides over one-fourth of world oil reserves and supplies the United States with nearly 20 percent of its petroleum imports.
Another 8 percent of the oil the United States consumes comes from countries like Iraq and Kuwait, bringing U.S. reliance on the region to nearly 30 percent of current needs.
While the odds of Saudi production being disrupted by the current conflict in the near term are remote, concern has risen over the longer-term stability of the Saudi monarchy and the safety of its oil fields, energy experts say.
"In order to deal with a reemergence of a tight-supply market, there should be an emphasis on looking for alternative sources of supply and alternative fuels to oil," said Edward Morse, an executive at Hess Energy Trading Co., LLC who has written on oil-related issues.
Despite the political concerns, the global economic slowdown helped push down U.S. oil futures prices to near two-year lows this week - hardly a catalyst for Americans to give up oil-intensive lifestyles epitomized by the popularity of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.
ALTERNATIVES TO OIL ARE REAL
Critics say that for its long term policy, the Bush administration has not gone far enough to wean the United States off its oil habit.
"If it weren't for the three letter word - oil - we would be free in the Middle East, as we are elsewhere, to support human rights, democracy and so forth," Woolsey said. "This is why waste and biomass is so important as a source for fuel," he said referring to organic fuels like ethanol that can be derived from plants like corn or from decomposed waste.
Leaders in the alternative energy world, like Amory Lovins, the head the Rocky Mountain Institute, said that real change is completely possible if the United States finds the political will to make it happen.
"What they (the Bush administration) don't yet have is a way to build a balanced portfolio of supply-side and demand-side measures to meet policy objectives at least cost," Lovins said.
Lovins said, for example, that by boosting light vehicle mileage requirements by just 2.7 miles per gallon, the United States could wipe out the need for all of last year's Mideast oil imports.
Other specialists like Scott Sklar, president of Stella Group Ltd, a company that sells fuel cells, said that within 15 years, renewable fuels could provide 15 percent of U.S. energy, and conservation measures could cut oil demand by 20 percent.
"The 20 percent is on top of that 15 percent, so we could cut back a little more than a third of total U.S. energy use, through use of renewables - both for transportation fuel and electric generation - and the use of efficiency," Sklar said.
Lovins stressed that even if the U.S. government is falling short in leading the way to less reliance on oil imports, some of the more progressive oil companies are showing initiative.
Major oil firms like Royal Dutch/Shell and BP are starting to develop alternative energy and being careful to create environmentally friendly public images.
"If we start a trend of replacing 1 percent a year of crude oil with fuel from organic waste materials, they (Arab regimes) will be able to read the writing on the wall very quickly," Woolsey said.
"One of the things that has drawn us into disfavor in the streets of the Arab countries is that they see us sponsoring, defending, their most corrupt and repressive regimes," Woolsey added.
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