America’s New Energy Policy

On Wednesday, March 30 President Obama revealed an update on his energy policy for the country.  He called for a 1/3 reduction in the importation of foreign oil from 2008 levels in a decade or so.  His plans to pull this off include more domestic drilling, more reliance on other fuels and alternatives, and greater efficiency.

Every president since Nixon has tried to limit or end our reliance on imported oil.
“Let us set as our national goal, in the spirit of Apollo, with the determination of the Manhattan Project, that by the end of this decade we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy source.”
– President Richard Nixon (November 7, 1973)

Despite the fact that every president, regardless of party, has proclaimed the need to reduce oil imports and develop alternative energies, the amount of oil we import has almost always gone up. (There was a period in the mid eighties where it went down).  So what has changed?  What makes now different from 1973?

Technology has advanced; progress goes forward (if you’re a modernist).  But what has really changed is how we see energy in our lives.  From the 1980’s onward, the price of gasoline has continued to rise.  Two very different things happen as the price of gasoline rises.  One is that the gasoline costs more, not online dollars but as a per cent of our lifestyle.  The other thing is that alternatives become more attractive, cost effective, and more people use them.  It may not be worth my time and effort to pay a $1.25 to ride the light rail one way if gasoline costs $2.50 a gallon, but it does become time and cost effective around $3.75 a gallon. 

Creative Commons License photo credit: barekim

The United States has 22 billion barrels (1 barrel = 42 gallons) of proved crude oil reserves.  Proven reserves are oil that we know where it is, have the technology to get to it, and it is economical to go after it.  Unproven oil reserves are what we think is probably there (based on the geology) or what we know is there but don’t have the technology to get to. Each year the amount of proved reserves changes.  This can be because new fields have been found; old fields are no longer producing, improvements in technology, and many other reasons.  To put that amount in perspective,  Saudi Arabia has 267 billion barrels in reserve and Mexico has 12.  We use 21 million barrels of oil a day, so if we had all our proven reserves producing 21 million barrels a day they would last almost 3 years.  So domestic drilling will help, but it can’t be the only way to go.

Other energy sources will have to be tapped.  One of the alternative fuels the presidents mentioned was natural gas.  Natural gas burns cleaner than coal or gasoline.  Right now natural gas is used mainly for electrical power generation and crude oil for transportation.  In order for natural gas to replace some or most of our crude oil use, there would have to be a major infrastructure shift.    Natural gas can not simply be put into gas tanks (it does not help that many different things are called by the same name).  A car would have to be retrofitted with a specially made natural gas tank.  That new tank would probably have some freezing element in it.  Natural gas in its gas state takes up a lot of space.  If you freeze the natural gas down to -258 degrees it is reduced in volume by 600%.  Also gasoline stations would have to be converted to be able to contain natural gas.

Full of Sparks
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

Electric powered cars could be added to the existing grid and infrastructure more easily. It would take a whole lot less work to convert gas stations into electric stations, although with the amount of time it takes to charge an electric car it might be easier to work with businesses to put electrical stations in parking spots.  That way you could charge your car while you shop for groceries (no matter the size of my shopping list it always takes at least an hour for me to grocery shop, partially because of all the free samples and partially to make sure I have all the spices for my Bouillabaisse).  The more electric cars on the road, the more electricity we need to produce.  This is where it makes sense to use the natural gas: burn it to create electricity instead of using coal.  However, not all the houses built in the past 30 years will have the ability to plug in cars

Conservation is where a lot of oil can be saved.  The president wants to increase the efficiency in the cars we drive.  Some of us drive nice little sedans that get 30 or more miles per gallon (some of us even drive hybrids), while others drive SUV’s that get 12 or so miles per gallon.  While the choice of vehicle is an individual one governed by affordability, space, and use (it makes more sense to haul around 7 kids and their sports gear in a SUV than in a 2 door sedan), all cars can be made more efficient.  Weight could be saved on the frame by using lighter materials, the software that runs the engine (yes, lots of cars have software now, but no apps yet) can be optimized, or any number of things that can even be done after you’ve bought the car. 

All in all, the president’s plan to reduce the amount of crude oil we import over the next decade or so is an achievable end.  In fact it has already started.  We reduced the oil we import by 1.7 million barrels a day from 2008 to 2009.  So now what happens?   Many people will sit on the sideline waiting to see what legislation and regulations the federal government hands down.  “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” We should all start the change ourselves. There are many different things we can do to use less oil.  Regular maintenance on your car, not having a trunk full of stuff, and driving less are just a few things you can do (for more information check out the ECC).