Faculty experts offer a range of opinions.
by TCU Faculty
Energy is TCU's Great Theme for 2016. (Photo by Carolyn Cruz.)
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by TCU Faculty
A North American energy policy or alliance is crucial to planning for the future. After 100 years of energy production, this is our last decade to get it right, or not. We are at a tipping point.
What would a North American energy policy or alliance look like?
In 2011, a United Nations report suggested that by 2030, a world population of some 8.3 billion souls would require approximately 30 percent more potable water, about 49.5 percent more energy and roughly 50 percent more food. These are sobering figures in a world marked by fading moral boundaries and an exponentially increasing capacity for self-destruction.
Viewed against this background, the need for an energy policy would seem to emerge with all the gravitas of a biblical commandment. However, the siren call must be tempered by realities that require any such policy to be flexible enough to realize that one size cannot fit all. Energy is difficult to export even in its easiest form – electricity. Potential sources of energy on this planet are not distributed according to the dictates of national boundaries. Populations are frequently distant to the energy they require. Some energy sources are secure, tried and tested; others are developmentally in their infancy and dependent on subsidy; others are but pipe dreams. The vagaries are vast. In my opinion, each of the political entities dividing us needs to develop an energy portfolio that looks at present needs and projects strategically into the future.
“Energy” has assumed a mantle of quasi-religious fervor that can inhibit rational thought. This secular mysticism, derived from classic environmentalism and, equally, from uninhibited capitalism, inhibits the development of rational solutions. Only when we allow our capacity for reason to best irrational emotion will we develop the solutions essential to our survival.
Specifically, the United States needs to develop regional solutions that integrate realistic and cost-effective measures, balancing current availability of supply, the need to develop future sources (requiring research), environmental sensitivity, geographic reality, and a demand that will continue to increase. The most difficult part of any energy policy in the country will be balancing the role of private companies and governmental agencies.
In the past, U.S. energy policy has been for the most part reactive, ad-hoc, driven by response to crisis, and at times, it has been incoherent. In an increasingly interdependent and integrated global energy market, we need an energy policy that not only coordinates production, distribution and consumption of energy at local and national levels but also coordinates such activities internationally.
We need an energy policy that strongly promotes energy efficiency and encourages production of diverse forms of energy in order to meet rising demand. In the last decade, the United States led the world in acquiring technologies that enabled it to become a major producer of natural gas and diminished the share of coal in its energy mix, thus lowering emissions of pollution. New policies must be initiated to affirm the United States’ role as a leader in producing the “clean energy” of the future.
A comprehensive energy policy also involves reconciling conflicting interests, taking into consideration the public’s input, and having an accurate understanding of cost-benefits and trade-offs involved in choosing different forms of energy supply. The 1970s energy shock should have been a wake-up call for the need to articulate a coherent energy policy, but we let that opportunity slip through our fingers. The current collapse of oil prices provides yet another opportunity to coordinate energy policy to better cope with the cycles of boom and bust in energy prices — and their economic and social consequences.
Since the U.S. is currently an exporter (natural gas) as well as an importer (oil) of energy, it is well positioned to assume a more pro-active role in the consumers-producers dialogue. It also can facilitate the dialogue between OPEC and non-OPEC producers of energy and use its influence over Saudi Arabia to curb its ill-advised manipulation of oil prices by flooding the market in order to run its competitors out of the market. Energy is too important for our economic survival to leave to the whims of the market. The time for the articulation of a comprehensive energy policy has come.
Opinions vary. My position is that the United States has the best possible energy policy, which is no comprehensive federal energy policy at all. That has allowed the energy markets to operate without policy-induced market distortions. The problem with energy policies, and all policies for that matter, is that they pick winners and losers in one way or another. If there had been a comprehensive federal energy policy in place going back 35 or 40 years, which let’s say promoted wind and solar over fossil fuels, I doubt that the shale energy revolution would have ever occurred. But because energy markets have been more or less unconstrained by policies, entrepreneurs were able to refine the techniques required to get natural gas and oil out of shale rock and make the wells profitable, triggering the biggest energy boom in this country in a 100 years.
Energy is a critical issue. We are likely to increase our national and global consumption of energy over the next two decades. Most scientists also argue that as we have burned more fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation, we have increased our emissions of greenhouse gases, resulting in global climate change, whose effects, such as drought and severe weather, also have impacts on our energy system (U.S. Department of Energy, 2016).
While many Americans are hopeful that new technologies will solve our problems, I would remind the public that each source of energy comes with its share of social and environmental risks and consequences. Even improving energy efficiency, which seems to be an environmentally “good” step to take, has sometimes been found to increase overall energy production and use (the “Jevons paradox”).
The federal government certainly has an important role to play in thinking about our energy future, particularly as our within-country decisions impact ecosystems and societies across the globe. However, I would suggest that we also think more critically about energy policy at lower institutional levels, as they often seem to possess higher levels of public trust and may be more successful in instituting energy policy change.
I have always been a proponent of a national energy policy. However, with much thought and reflection, I have changed my mind. I do not believe with the present political environment being so polarized that a consensus can be achieved. The unintended consequences of favoring one energy resource over another could have grave economic affect with little environmental impact. We probably have never been more energy secure than we are right now. Let the marketplace determine our direction.
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