Column: Solving energy problem is long process

Bob Thomas

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When the president of the United States declared that he would not support the Keystone Pipeline, which will transport tar-sand oil from Canada to U.S. coastal refineries, many cheered that an environmental victory had been won.

I believe an opportunity was squandered that will affect our nation’s energy future.

Our nation is in a state of economic and social stress due to our enormous consumption of energy from fossilized fuel sources. We have built the largest economy on earth by parlaying energy into commodities and investments.

We know that the use of fossil fuels liberates long-stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The scientific community is united in its knowledge that the massive carbon release that has occurred for a couple hundred years is hastening the natural cycle of climate change, and thus we call it an anthropogenic increase ­— human activity stacked on top of Mother Nature’s actions.

Yes, that’s right. Climate change is a natural cycle. A mere 15,000 years ago, our world was in the midst of the Ice Age. At that time, world sea level was 450 feet shallower than it is today. Eighty million years ago, it was about 500 feet higher than it is today.

The bottom-line of the grave concern would make a good political bumper sticker, a commentary that it’s not the change, “It’s the rate, stupid!”

The changes of the past have been very slow, and there were no permanent facilities on earth. Living things simply moved with the sea/land interface. But today, a peculiar species, Homo sapiens, has built cities, highways, factories, ports and much, much more. So when coastlines change, much is lost. It’s ironic that as we bemoan our losses, all other species will do as they have always done: they will simply move away from the edge.

So, if I’m convinced that global climate change is real, and I believe that our economic addiction to fossil fuels is speeding the rate of change, why on earth would I be in favor of a tar-sand oil pipeline extending from Canada to Texas, potentially crossing the fragile Ogallala Aquifer in the heartland of the U.S.?

The answer is that I’m a strong proponent of our nation leading the development of efficient sustainable energy systems. But we don’t get there at the snap of our fingers. Barring sudden, surprising technological breakthroughs, it may take several decades to get there with a concerted effort that is called the Apollo Project. President John F. Kennedy feared Russian success in space, so he declared that we would be on the moon in 10 years, and we succeeded. We now need leadership that will declare a targeted timeline for reaching a clearly defined goal of sustainable energy.

In order to do this, we need to maximize the availability of the massive amount of energy it will take for this enterprise, and we additionally need to stop sending $1 billion per day out of the country to buy oil and gas.

We need to tap local hydrocarbon sources, and our government needs to ensure that it will be done safely through reasonable and consistent regulation. Release the private sector that has made America great, but regulate their activities closely so that the job is done properly.

The parallel portion of the Apollo Project is to launch a national imperative effort to unleash American ingenuity and global collaboration — just as we did in the space effort — to make sustainable energy cost effective and readily available, so we can replace the day-to-day use of fossil fuels.

We need an energy bridge that will let us get to the goal of sustainability. We need a budget to get there. Local energy saves the export of billions of dollars to buy oil from others. Although we will still be buying from another country, it will be from Canada, our strong ally.

But before we allow our corporations to move and process that oil, we need a leader to secure guarantees that all stakeholders know the target and that a predefined timeline is clearly understood.

Nota bene: if we do not purchase Canadian oil from our ally to the north, it is a foregone conclusion that the oil will go to China. For those who dislike oil and will have no part of it, be forewarned that we live in a global ecosystem, and it is typical that Chinese industry releases about three times the pollutants that are released in the more highly regulated United States.

But there is a fly in the ointment. There are no regulations that guarantee oil corporations will sell oil in the U.S. They can refine it here and sell it on the world market. The $64,000 question is: how do we ensure that corporations work toward the goals necessary to strengthen our country?

Oil will always be in our lives. It is a valuable commodity. But it is simply too valuable to burn in combustible engines and bury in landfills in the form of disposable plastic bottles!

America must be the thought leader in sustainable energy, in my humble opinion.

Bob Thomas is a mass communication professor and the director of the Center for Environmental Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]