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Kelpie Wilson: Paying the Peak Oil Power Bill

Paying the Peak Oil Power Bill

By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Environmental Editor
http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/080207J.shtml

Sometime this week, the House will vote on a new "energy independence" bill designed by the Democrats. Even though Congress just passed an omnibus energy bill in 2005, there is growing agreement on both sides of the aisle that the need for "energy security" is growing and more must be done to ensure it.

But just like the 2005 Energy Policy Act, the 2007 Energy Independence Day bill lacks any sort of comprehensive vision about our energy future or any bold initiative to grapple with it. Part of the reason for the piecemeal approach to energy is the deliberate cloaking of the most vital fact about energy - that we are running out of it much faster than most people realize. Terms like "energy independence" and "energy security" function to displace concerns about the resource limits of the earth onto conventional concerns about national security and war.

The real issue is not whether "our oil is under their sand," but the fact supplies of oil and gas worldwide are nearly at the point where they will no longer be able to easily meet demand. The shorthand term for this reality is "peak oil," or "peak fossil fuels."

At a press briefing last week, members of the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus criticized a recent report from the National Petroleum Council (NPC) for obscuring the truth about peak oil. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) accused the NPC of fostering "a false sense of complacency" about oil supplies. He contrasted the NPC report with one from the International Energy Agency that was released at about the same time. That report, Udall said, sounded a "clarion call" and "said what needs to be said, that we're probably going to peak in the next couple of years. This could cause some very severe economic consequences and the world needs to start organizing and dealing with this."

Representative Bartlett (R-Maryland), another member of the Peak Oil Caucus, said the facts were buried in the NPC report if you knew where to look. He said graphs in the report showed world oil production has been flat for the last 30 months while, at the same time, the price has gone up from $40 to $75 a barrel.

But because the American public is not aware of the imminent peak, there is little pressure on Congress to take bold action on energy. That is why auto-industry champion Representative Dingell (D-Michigan) has gotten away with knocking auto fuel-efficiency standards clean off the table. House leaders won't even consider proposals to raise mileage standards in this bill - the debates would eat up all the time they have left before the August recess. Instead, they may try to bring the issue back up in global-warming legislation this fall.

One significant policy initiative that might get considered this week is a national Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that requires utilities to generate at least 20 percent of their electricity using renewable energy by 2020. It is not part of the bill currently, but may be added as an amendment.

Renewable portfolio standards already exist in 23 states, and the Senate has passed versions of a national RPS several times in recent years, but heavy lobbying pressure by some utilities kept it out of the Senate version of this energy legislation. So, if the idea is going to get any traction this year, it will have to start in the House.

The biggest noise against the bill has been coming from some utilities that serve the southeastern part of the country. They say the southeast does not have the abundant wind or solar resources other parts of the country have and a national RPS will raise power bills. The National Association of Manufacturers also complains of higher power costs, as does the conservative think tank, the National Center for Policy Analysis, in a press release titled, "Congress Set to Make Energy More Expensive."

Here's a news flash for the National Center for Policy Analysis: Congress won't make energy more expensive; the limits on natural resources will make energy more expensive, and if myopic business interests like NCPA and NAM continue to thwart progress on renewable energy, the United States is going to end up in deep energy poverty. Twenty-seven European countries have already agreed to get 20 percent of their energy from renewables by 2020, and India and China have similar targets. Where will we be in 2020 if we refuse to face the facts and never raise renewables above the paltry two percent they currently provide?

The arguments against a national RPS are extremely flimsy. Take the complaint by southerners that they have no renewable energy sources. The southeast may not have a lot of wind and its solar resource may not be as strong as in the southwest, but it does have more biomass than any other region. According to Leon Lowery, energy adviser to Senator Bingaman (D-New Mexico), biomass already produces twice as much electricity as wind.
Also, renewable energy credits can be traded, so the energy does not all have to be produced in the region. The south already imports gas, coal and uranium to generate electricity, so why not sun and wind? Besides, whatever happened to that cherished notion of Southern independence? You'd think the southern states would be eager to show some energy independence.

Critics of a national RPS also claim it is more efficient to continue with the current state-by-state RPS policies. Dr. Marilyn Brown, professor of energy policy at Georgia Tech, debunked this notion during a recent panel discussion on renewable standards. She said that a national standard has many benefits including increased economies of scale for rolling out new technologies more cost effectively. A national standard would also improve marketplace efficiency.

Dr. Brown said, "If our interstate highway system was structured like our renewable energy market, drivers would be forced to change their engines, maybe their tires, and probably their fuels, every time they cross state boundaries."

Quantifying the benefits of adopting a national RPS, she said, "If, in fact, 20 percent of our electricity in 2020 were to be provided by renewables, then we would be displacing the equivalent of 71 million cars from the nation's highways."

Some day soon, despite all the soothing words of the NPC, America will wake up to the reality of peak oil. Here is how the International Energy Agency describes the threat in their most recent report: "Despite four years of high oil prices, this report sees increasing market tightness beyond 2010, with OPEC spare capacity declining to minimal levels by 2012."

We have about four years to redesign our energy infrastructure. Congress could take a first step this week, by approving a national renewable portfolio standard. It might be time to give your snoozing representative a wake up call.

*************

Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of Darwin's Radio, says: "Primal Tears is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family."

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