Nuclear Crisis, the Folly of Drilling & How to Build a Clean Energy Future

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Last Thursday, Citizens Climate Lobby‘s Villanova group held a meeting to discuss the nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan and how this impacts future energy policy in the United States. The Villanova group leader also explained the usefulness of personal testimony in letters to Congress, in support of the Million Letter March.

The question of how nuclear power, or its deep fallibility, will affect the clean energy future is crucial, because the conventional policy response to a reduction in nuclear power investment is the expansion of interest in carbon intensive fossil fuels. We now have the technology to shift to a clean energy economy, and the responsibility to move our nations policy in that direction.

Germany has been able to shut down its oldest and most vulnerable nuclear reactors, because its robust solar energy sector produces more power than the entire Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. Germany is also the world leader in wind energy technology and production, and so has the freedom to move away from high-contamination-risk energy sources. In the US, there is now mounting skepticism about whether the nation should continue to even fund the nuclear industry.

According to Reuters:

The survey of 814 Americans found 53 percent would support a moratorium on new nuclear reactor construction if the country was able to meet its energy demand through increased efficiency and renewable sources such as wind and solar.

Nearly three-quarters of those polled oppose having taxpayers take on the risk for the construction of new reactors through billions of dollars in new federal loan guarantees. Instead, most support shifting those dollars to wind and solar power.

Shortcomings of Nuclear

After more than 60 years in operation, the nuclear power industry has yet to establish a secure means of permanent storage, yet to create plants that pose no risk of seepage, yet to truly and effectively contain all radioactive materials associated with nuclear power generation. But in the United States, where the majority of people live within 50 miles of at least one nuclear reactor—the radius of the exclusion zone suggested by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the Fukushima crisis—, there is a great deal of faith still invested in the notion that combustible carbon-based fuels are the fastest, easiest, most affordable way to fill demand.

That poses a very serious risk, to public health, the environment—including air and water quality—and to the stability of global climate patterns, should national policy move in the direction of adding, instead of phasing out, carbon-based combustible fuels as a means of power generation. One of the issues we needed to explore, in this discussion at Villanova—as students raised questions about what comes next, given the challenges facing the world community at present—, is how we might go about accelerating the pace of change, so that renewable energy really is the most viable, most scalable, most readily available, domestic and abundant energy option.

First, there is the problem of a long-standing prejudice that clean energy resources are not robust enough and cannot compete with carbon-based combustible fuels. Second, there is the government-funded prejudice that carbon-based fuels and nuclear power are cheaper than renewables.

Fossil fuels and nuclear power require tens of billions of dollars in free giveaways from taxpayers, but our generalized ignorance of those subsidies—how they work, how much they are worth, which companies are getting them, all the other constructive ways that money could be spent, what opportunities we have lost by providing such massive funding to these industries—allows an untrue prejudice to slow the spread of clean energy technologies.

Expanded Drilling Will Not Help

We know that domestic oil reserves cannot free us from our dependence on foreign oil. In fact, even if we were to extract, as rapidly as possible, all of what we have, we would hold on only until 2014, before becoming 100% dependent on foreign oil. And that would be beneficial only if price fluctuations were following trends in supply and demand. But they are not. The current crisis in price spikes is almost totally owing to speculation.

Speculators now control two-thirds of world oil supply, at any given time, and their frenzy of buying and selling, speculating on the impact the Libyan crisis, or unrest in the Arabian Peninsula, will have on prices, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are pushing prices higher. Dean Baker, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has written, in a thorough and illuminating piece on the subject, that:

According to the Energy Information Agency, the United States has proven reserves of 22.3 billion barrels of oil. Given our current rate of consumption of 6.9 billion barrels a year, U.S. reserves could meet our demand for oil for less than 3.5 years. That means if we could somehow drill here, now, and everywhere, we could be energy independent until the middle of 2014 and then we would be 100 percent dependent on imported oil.

Of course, we cannot suddenly suck all the oil out of the ground at once, it takes time to explore and drill wells and then the oil must be drilled out over time. If we decided that we want to destroy every last national park and coastal region, we may be able to increase production by 1.0-1.5 million barrels a day in 5-10 years. At the high end, this would be a bit less than 2 percent of world supply.

Given normal assumptions about how demand responds to price, we would be very lucky to see a 6 percent decline in the price of oil. This means that in the most optimistic “drill everywhere” scenario we would save less than 20 cents from our $4 a gallon gas. More likely the savings would be less than half this size.

The wholesale destruction—by industrial construction, road-building, perforation and outflow contamination—of every oil-rich or gas-rich protected wild place in the United States would help us shave a few cents per gallon off the price of gasoline. For a few years only. Whether or not a politician is a friend to oil companies, this will never be a solution to our dependence on foreign oil or to the question of rising prices. Only a solid and far-reaching national commitment to clean energy sources will allow us to be truly free of our need for oil. Only by building the green economy that our century demands can we put into effect the true innovative potential and recapture the economic freedom that we imagine to be our cultural birthright.

Building the Green Economy 

We have the technology, right now, to power our entire national economy on clean energy. What we are lacking is the built infrastructure and the political will to accelerate the transition.

Three states alone—Texas, Kansas and North Dakota—have enough wind energy potential to power the entire domestic energy demand, were they to build the infrastructure to harness that energy. California and New Jersey lead the nation in solar power, but there are at least 10 states that could easily surpass New Jersey, were they to take advantage of their own sun-drenched desert or coastal plains.

Texas has the potential to be the nation’s leader in both wind and solar-voltaic power generation. The major obstacle to this taking place, however, is that ownership of the fuel supply must be decentralized. Major industrial powers, like oil companies, gas companies and utilities, will have to relinquish control of the fuel supply, as people, communities and small businesses install clean power sources.

This means a major policy shift is required, one that will put the power of choice back in the hands of consumers, limiting the reach of oligarchies that rely on taxpayer funding for combustible fuels and nuclear power. The optimal way to do this, the simplest, most direct and most consumer-friendly way, is to put a direct fee on fuels that emit carbon dioxide. The fee is applied at the source—the mine, the well, the port of entry to the United States—, and 100% of the revenues are returned directly to American households.

Every household receives the same cash amount, every month, a full share for up to two adults and a half share for up to two children. The plan is called carbon fee and dividend. The key is the monthly “green check” that allows consumers to offset any increase in price increase the old-guard resource extractors try to pass along.

The poor would be less vulnerable to the price hikes, because they would receive the same amount back that the wealthy would receive. The wealthy, who have the resources to drive investment and market changes, would be incentivized to do this sooner, rather than later. As the fee increases and more infrastructure is in place, everyone will be able to save money by buying clean energy.

The fee and dividend policy shift will help us commit as a nation to the project of innovation and constructive development that will give us a sustainable, clean energy future, free of dependence on dirty, pollution-prone resources like oil, coal, gas and nuclear.

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Originally published March 24, 2011, at WordsAgainstChaos.com

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