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The Energy Debate From Abroad

Listening to the presidential debate last night, I couldn't help wondering what it must sound like to foreign ears.

First, here is the world's biggest energy hog struggling to get its oil and coal appetite under control. It talks about the energy problem. It IS the energy problem.

Second, what's the fuss about offshore drilling? Most Americans didn't raise any objections about new supplies in the North Sea during the 1980s, or recent drilling off the west coast of Africa, both sources of high quality crude oil. But U.S. attitudes are different when it comes to the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Third, the rest of the world must think: Don't start in again with that rhetoric about energy independence. Presidents have been doing that since Richard Nixon, yet the United States imports more oil now than ever.
Even the candidates don't believe it. Did you see how neither one would give even a ballpark estimate of how much imports could be reduced in the next president's first term? John McCain started talking about building new nuclear plants in response to a question about cutting oil imports. You don't put nuclear power in a car - unless the cars are electric, and it will be many years before we have electric cars on any meaningful scale. (Don't get me wrong: The rest of the world will be happy if the United States cuts its dependence on foreign oil because then there will be more for everyone else, and the price will come down -- or at least go up less -- in the years to come.)

Fourth, the nuclear plants are years away, too. They take a long time to plan, finance and build - and a lot of government money too. The United States, if it moves ahead, will have to get in line behind other countries with orders for the big reactor heads, which are only made by one company in Japan.

Fifth, what in the world is "clean coal" and where have those Americans been hiding it? And if it's so clean, why did Barack Obama say that some environmentalists were angry at him for supporting it? The answer, of course, is that "clean coal" is energy Newspeak. There's no such thing as clean coal, only ways to clean up after the coal. "Clean" coal - which both candidates said they support -- refers to the technology that would capture carbon dioxide generated by coal-fired power plants and bury the greenhouse gas in the ground. But that technology is expensive and untested, and reduces the efficiency of coal plants, creating the need for more coal inputs to such plants.

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Comments (23)

carvalhomp Author Profile Page:

And it is not a very bad idea to remember that sugarcane-based ethanol is less expensive than gasoline and much more cost-effective than the fuel extracted from corn. Millions of cars are running on sugarcane ethanol, which can be produced on a large scale in many developing countries, where land and water are inexpensive by international standards.
G.P. Carvalho

ricinro85212 Author Profile Page:

Why bother with troublesome energy sources such as nuclear of fossil fuel? Mining coal, oil, gas and uranium as well as burning, cleaning, decommissioning and securing wastes and protecting facilities is just not worth the hassle. It is now clear that our geopolitical and defense concerns require a global moratorium on the production of fissionable materials because they CAN get in the hands of terrorists and rogue states, often in the guise of "peaceful" nuclear power.
It is becoming clearer that renewable energy sources will ultimately win in the market place because they alone do not pollute, tear up the environment or risk running out. Further, the sun and wind, waves and tide etc. are well distributed allowing American designed technology to be exported globally to solve everyone energy problems.
So it is the win-win solution. Please get over your culture war issues with leftists -the sixties called and it wants its stupidity back.

gary4books Author Profile Page:

"how are we going to secure hundreds, thousands of square-miles of solar power-plant?"

Build it where it is used and in the roofs of millions of houses. That should do the job.

gary4books Author Profile Page:

How the mighty anti energy forces have fallen. Once they had nuclear death to scare us with. Now they are reduced to Senator Kennedy complaining about ugly wind mills and now clean coal is impossible because it is less efficient?

What a farce.

jheubusch Author Profile Page:

Europeans have been dealing with an energy crisis in price for decades when it comes to the cost of fuel. We are now only just beginning to see the activity in America that will make us act more and more European each day. Your readers might be interested in "The Europeanization of America" at

jimtwest3 Author Profile Page:

Hitler fought almost all of WW II using Coal Gasification technology. Unfortunately, the technology was so successful, that Hitler managed to do alot of damage without the benefit of a single oil well.
South Africa has a large Coal Gasifcation Plant (SSL) that produces a barrel of oil for around $35.
The Governor of Montana has been pushing for Coal Gasification in Montana.
The US Air Force just flew a B52 using jet fuel from a coal gasification plant. This is not a new technology. Our Air Force does not want to be dependent on Middle Eastern oil to fly our Air Force jets.
Coal Gasification is a technology that has been around for decades and works. Coal gasification is not rocket science, and does not take a decade to bring a plant online.
Big oil dominates Washington and big oil dominates our entire energy debate. Coal gasification is a threat to big oil.
We have lots of coal in our country, and coal gasification does not require off shore drilling.
Our Big oil companies want to keep our country dependent on oil, even if it damages our economy, and enriches the Middle East.

channing1 Author Profile Page:

"" dubya19391 Author Profile Page:

um, you're missing the point that solar energy in the desert isn't a guarantee. We can't even keep the Mexicans from invading the SW US""

I assume you were referring to my comment?

Solar power does not need a guarantee from Mexicans not to invade or grow pot in or around "our" solar deserts: Mexicans need the same access to common wealth that all people on the planet need, and energy is foundational to that. Mexico may find itself a net exporter of electrical energy and a desalinated water byproduct of CSA's, so why would they leave Mexico in the first place? How many Mexicans would be seeking gainful employment in the US when their own blue collar economy was thriving? Further, an international acknowledgment of energy "interdependency" would nurture the kind of cooperation previous generations/civilizations could only dream of. Who would attack "everyone's" electrical supply chain, and what good would it do when that supply is designed for continuous re-routing anyway? You cold never knock the whole grid off without destroying the entire planet.

You talk about "securing" borders in the mold of the "20th Century War Generation" who clearly wish to expand the divide and conquer nemesis of civil humanity, and thereby subordinate the people on the ground. Solar Deserts would be an excellent back-bone of a sustainable future and revolution in international cooperation.

Route1 Author Profile Page:

Even if you could reduce the air pollution from burning coal to zero, the truth is, someone still has to go get the coal. And that's really why coal isn't clean ... you've got these operators who can dump mining waste into streams -- not to mention the human toll of mining. If we could clean that up, and take more steps to cut down on air pollution caused by coal, I'd feel better about coal. We have a lot of it, it would be a shame to not use it for good.

As for electric cars, may I suggest that natural gas vehicles (NGVs) are a great solution. NG burns much cleaner than petroleum, it's readily available here in America, and it's cheaper than gas at the pump. In terms of emissions, NGVs are comparable to hybrids -- and often times better. You can even refuel at home. And some jurisdictions have incentives, in addition to federal incentives, that make them very affordable to own.

Also ... while perhaps it is awkwardly constructed, I'm not sure that the core of Dubya's point is racist. If we're going to build energy facilities in the Southwestern deserts, it's fair to ask about how they can be secured in that environment. Ultimately, however, I'm sure that can be overcome. I suppose you'd arrange for security much the same as you would for other sensitive sites. You've got military bases in the SW, and I haven't heard much about intruders jumping on the tarmac and keeping military jets from taking off.

rmattocks Author Profile Page:

Why isn't anyone using T. Boone Pickens idea of using natural gas, which we have an abundance of as a bridge to finally weaning ourselves off this foreign oil. Why can't we use natural gas? It's already fueling some of our D.C. Metrobuses now as we speak.

agapn9 Author Profile Page:

Unfortunately, no candidate can tell the voter what exactly they are going to do to enhance the economy, energy independence or the like.

And the gulf between what a President can do without a political consensus from the loyal opposition and what he should be able to do based on the best practices of other nations is immense.

Most of us were already aware of this gulf but thanks for pointing it out.

zcezcest1 Author Profile Page:

good article. clean coal is an issue in Illinois and many other swing states. Oppose it and lose. The real issue is that we need to move quickly towards electricity-powered vehicles, like plug-in hybrids. That changes the mix of transport fuels dramatically. Government can accelerate that change-over and this is the biggest issue.

mizshwty Author Profile Page:

it wolud be nice to have electric cars

mizshwty Author Profile Page:

woow! i cant believe you all racist still taliking about mexicans. this land was made for everyone.

dubya19391 Author Profile Page:

um, you're missing the point that solar energy in the desert isn't a guarantee.

We can't even keep the Mexicans from invading the SW US and exploiting our national forests as pot-growing territory.

If we can't secure our southern border, how are we going to secure hundreds, thousands of square-miles of solar power-plant?

leaand2 Author Profile Page:

When traveling around England last year my husband and I were a little shocked to see the number of nuclear reactors, usually 10 or 12 reactors in a group. It occurred to both of us that if an enemy wanted to destroy England, all they would have to do is bomb 1 or 2 of these groups of reactors. By increasing our nuclear reactors would we be setting ourselves up to this type of attack?

G-Loco Author Profile Page:

What? No mention of McCain's comment that we need cut our dependence on oil from Venezuela and the the Middle East? Am I to assume then that oil from Africa, Russia, and the Caucasus is o.k? Doesn't the quality of Canada's oil shale cause huge levels of pollution. Oil from any market in the world has an adverse impact on the environment and its price is determined by a global marketplace. Chosing one country's oil over another is placing politics over policy and misses the point of a comprehensive energy strategy that reduces our dependence on all fossile fuel not just from counties where we have strategic interests.

cgriesba Author Profile Page:

What I don't understand is why so many fuel efficient cars marketed for Europe, Japan, etc., haven't made their way over here yet? I've read up on many European or Japanese only vehicles over the years and understand that they wouldn't sell well in the states because of how much smaller they are than a typical U.S. vehicle. However, with the change in U.S. attitudes towards oversized vehicles (as evidenced by the popularity of the smartcar, Ford Focus, Honda Fit, every VW compact car, etc.) they should be able to sell enough in the U.S. to make it profitable. Even if something like the VW Polo TDI has to be stretched out for americans, making the vehicle one-foot wider, two-feet longer, and six-inches taller shouldn't cut the car's mpg rating in half.

jbritt3 Author Profile Page:

Federal funding for "clean coal" has been included in Congressional appropriations bill for almost 20 years. Clean coal research has been directed primarily at technologies to remove sulfur dioxide and particulates -- pollutants explicitly regulated by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments -- as part of that legislation's efforts to reduce acid rain in the Northeast without destroying the coal industry, especially in the eastern United States that tends to have "dirtier" coal than that from western US sources. Very little of this technology is relevant to climate change.

The use of the phrase "clean coal" to describe burning coal without discharging large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere is a relatively recent development, and research and development of carbon sequestration and other technologies does not reflect 20 years of clean coal funding -- not because real research was not being done during all that time, but instead because the phrase "clean coal" is now being used to mean something other than it was when research funding began.

Route1 Author Profile Page:

Thank you for pointing out the myth of clean coal. My guess is, Obama doesn't want to risk the wrath of Pennsylvania, so he trades off skepticism about coal for votes.

We do need coherent and ambitious national energy GOALS ... and it must be made clear to the American people that the costs achieving these goals will be high in the short term, and will require sacrifice. It will especially require sacrifice from those of us who are doing well in society. "To whom much is given, much is expected," and cynical, selfish cries of "class warfare" whenever one is asked to contribute for the good of society hardly represents rising to the moment. It hardly represents the advent of socialism in America if the well-off are asked to sacrifice in a time of national need, to promote the greater good. We can't afford to have free riders at this point in history. But if we can articulate a goal and pay the price for it, it will be well worth it in the long run.

rmorris391 Author Profile Page:

Let's face reality. The U.S. has no serious energy policy. Very little is done to reduce demand. There are few plans for conservation, recyling, or alternative energy. U.S. energy policy is based on 19th century thinking. There is no concept of stewardship, environmental consequences, nor responsibility for action.

The oil companies, the auto industry, and the government have colluded to create a broken system of energy exploration, energy distribution, and energy waste.

JOlsson1 Author Profile Page:

Very good and unusual article in the American media. Just like it would take years to create more nuclear power, it would also take years to start more off-shore drilling. Appropriate ships and platforms are not exactly easy to get, and they are not exactly cheap or easy to operate. It is glaringly evident that the only thing that actually works is to levy a substantial tax on gasoline. That is what every other western country has done. The reaction from people when this is done is obviously to buy more fuel efficient cars. American drivers have no idea that there are cars that get up to 70 MPG in combined driving conditions, such as the VW Polo TDI.

channing1 Author Profile Page:

Like the US auto industry, the US energy sector is stuck in 20th century technology, a victim of obsessive profit-momentum driven by wasteful addiction to finite extracted fuels and overly powerful influence in our Military-Industrial Congress... not to mention the Bush-Oiligarchy.

An American-German engineering firm has had on its website published calculations at for a number of years which establish clearly our capacity to produce 100% of world energy supplies from "Solar Deserts" alone. The Earth's deserts absorb 7-800 times the amount of converted solar energy that the entire human race consumes from all other sources combined at today's conversion efficiencies. Connecting a global high-tension grid of concentrated solar arrays on every continent eliminates the 12-on/12-off localized solar production limitation. The results are unarguable:

Millions of sustainable blue-collar careers; Permanent energy supply; Low-tech ubiquitous energy infrastructure supplying the inevitable electric-dependent technologies; No massive military, read, tax-funded National Security apparatus; No hazardous waste or classified technology; Solar Deserts are not mutually-exclusive to other clean sustainable energy infrastructure like local solar, wind, geothermal, tidal etc.,; and, NO EXHAUSTION OF SUPPLIES FOR THE NEXT 4 BILLION YEARS!

The nuclear energy cycle must continue to be researched for lots of potential and specialized purposes, but a global energy future that ignores the perfect Fusion energy supply in the middle of our solar system is the the most backwards legacy we could leave future generations... and did I mention "carbon-neutral" and ""warming-averse"?

olegnaj Author Profile Page:

You're correct, Mr. Mufson. All views expressed by the candidates on these 5 points are viewed with a lot of wariness around the world. In fact, many Americans too do so.

What would indicate to them serious intent on the part of the proponent can only be serious talk on deminishing use of oil-gas-coal as sources of energy, of serious commitment for the development of alternative energy-production, and the like. (In re nuclear reactors, this is an "ugly" alternative, for obvious and anxiety-raising reasons.) Avowals on this issue includes concrete suggestions that call for sacrifices both in terms of financial expenditures and in accepting inconviences in life.

Focus on this if the USA hopes to retain leadership role internationally and, as well, if a viable move is to be made to safeguard stability of its own economy. Such stability can only rest on greater self-dependence/sufficiency in energy provision for its own needs.

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