Energy Sustainability

I recently attended a forum sponsored by Harper's Magazine at the National Press Club on "The Geopolitics of Energy Sustainability: Meeting Demand in a Changing International Environment." The four speakers at the forum were erudite and represented different sectors of the energy policy universe. Kent F. Moors, the moderator, is executive managing partner of Risk Management Associates International and president of ASIDA, an energy consulting firm. The panel consisted of Elizabeth Cheney, vice president of exploration and production for Shell Americas; Bruce Schlein, vice president of environmental affairs for Citigroup; and John C. Topping Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Climate Institute. Moors painted a fairly bleak picture, concluding, "At most, we have 30 years left of a sustainable crude-oil-based economy. The big fields are gone. We are looking at smaller fields, geologically difficult fields, and poorer quality crude oil. We need alternative energy sources, including alternative sources of hydrocarbons. This must include ways to increase the efficiency of existing fields, including mitigating the environmental damage of exploiting them." Moors observed that weaning ourselves from petroleum will be the "most difficult, excruciating change we have ever faced." Today, Moors noted, there is only about 1.1 million barrels per day of excess supply. Demand will soon exceed supply because of growth in demand in Asia, significant growth in demand in the oil-producing countries, and growth in demand in West Africa. "We are entering an era when the market for energy is going to be completely different," Moors said. "There is no consensus where we go next, but there is a consensus that we have to go somewhere. This may be one of the great tests of American democracy," he concluded. Given that introduction, I expected fireworks from the three panelists. Although they acknowledged the challenges facing the world over energy, they all seemed oddly disengaged, considering the magnitude of the problem. Cheney, for example, who said she was admittedly oversimplifying, said that two things are clear: "We need more energy and we need less CO2." She then listed "three hard truths: Demand is growing. Supply is struggling to keep pace with demand. Stresses being put on the environment are ever growing." Yes, Shell's commitment to energy development is impressive: $35 billion in capital investments in 2008, Cheney said, with significant R&D commitments to alternative technologies such as carbon capture and storage, biofuels, and wind energy. But much of what Cheney pointed to sounded a lot like business as usual. Schlein and Topping weren't much different. Schlein talked about increased efficiency and microfinancing opportunities in developing countries. Topping observed that CO2 emissions have grown 3.1% annually from 2000 to 2006, faster than in the 1990s, and that the efficiency of electric power generation was 33% in the 1950s and remains 33% today. He then talked mostly about regulations that prevent companies from selling cogenerated electricity to anyone other than utilities, transmission charges that make no sense, and how much energy can be derived from power recycling. The day after the forum, the Washington Post had an article titled "Carbon Is Building Up in Atmosphere Faster Than Predicted." "In 2007, carbon released from burning fossil fuels and producing cement increased 2.9% over that released in 2006, to a total of 8.47 gigatons," according to the Global Carbon Project. "This output is at the very high end of scenarios outlined by the International Panel on Climate Change," the article continued, and could translate into a global temperature rise of more than 11 °F by 2100. The article pointed out that CO2 emissions from industrialized nations have nearly stabilized but that emissions from developing countries are skyrocketing. I don't pretend to know what to do about this looming catastrophe, and I am heartened that people are finally taking it seriously, but we're not nearly as serious about this issue as we need to be. Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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