December 06, 2009

Global Warming NOT the Only Problem with Fossil Fuels

After the American Century

During the next three weeks we will hear a great deal about the problem of global warming. I do believe that global warming is taking place, that the actions of human beings contribute to it, and that it lies within our power to do somethning about it. But put aside that entire discussion for a moment, and consider what other reasons there might be to cut back on burning fossil fuels.

Not all countries produce oil, coal, and/or natural gas. Advanced industrial nations that lack supplies are not coincidentally in the forefront of finding alternatives. Germany has virtually no oil or natural gas, and its more accessible coal has already been mined. Therefore Germany finds it highly interesting to develop wind turbines and solar power, and indeed has been one of the leading countries in both sectors for years. France, in much the same energy situation, has more nuclear power than any other nation. More than 80% of its electricity comes from nuclear plants. Sweden has no oil, and it relies on nuclear power and hydroelectric dams.

In contrast, countries like the United States and Britain which have oil fields and coal mines have been far slower to develop alternative energies. One can take this argument further, and say that within the US, places without fossil fuels like New England, New York, Oregon, and Washington are far more supportive of wind and solar energy than are states with coal fields. Montana, Illinois, Wyoming, and West Virginia together supply 55% of US coal production, and they are not supporting the shift to alternatives. One finds the same resistence to change in the biggest oil producting states, Texas, Alaska, and Lousiana.

Without going into arguments about global warming, it seems obvious that the current energy regime favors fossil fuel exporting regions and in effect imposes a tax on those who import oil, gas, and coal. Half a century ago the cost of these energy sources was so low as to be almost a negligable part of the total cost of production. This is no longer so. Fuel prices, over the long term, have risen and can only continue to rise as demand increases. Already in Russia, more than 20% of the gross national product (GNP), comes from oil and gas exports; in Nigeria 35%; in Venezuela 27%; and so on for all the major oil producers.

It is always a good idea to "follow the money." Most of the world's powerful economies - the US, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Japan, Australia, China, and India - are all net importers of oil and gas. The United States imports almost 12 million barrels of oil every day. Japan imports a bit less than half that. China imports "only" 2.9 million barrels a day, but this figure is rocketing higher, as its citizens now buy more cars every month than consumers in the US. The major industrial nations need alternatives, and in the next two decades they will probably develop them.

There is one other argument in favor of a shift to alternative energies. Quite simply, the world's reserves of oil, coal, and gas are not infinite. Why keep paying a premium to use someone else's well, when it is drying up?