Friday, February 23, 2007

Can we 'govern' our way out of our energy problems?

By M.D. Harmon
Portland Press Herald Friday
February 23, 2007

This column has taken issue recently with the enthusiasts who would have us retrench our standard of living severely on the miniscule chance that 1) "climate change" will be as serious a problem as Al Gore says it will and 2) we can greatly affect the outcome in any case.

But just because environmentalists have their heads in the wrong location on this issue, that doesn't mean their hearts are misplaced as well.

Trouble is, vapid sentimentalities tend to dominate the present debate on energy issues.

So conservatives should, once they point out the ills associated with statist enthusiasms, offer alternatives that can achieve their promised benefits without either bankrupting or enslaving the citizenry.

Ergo, here's a four-point plan that would boost our economy rather than throttle it.

1) When you're in a hole, stop digging. So, stop throwing billions of federal dollars at programs that do nothing but drive up the re-election hopes of Midwestern politicians.

When you add up all the costs of producing ethanol, you discover that there's a reason it takes immense federal subsidies to bring it to market.

Nobody would produce the stuff if it sold for what it cost to grow the grain and process it.

And its producers' demand for corn and other grains is driving up the cost of feed and thus the cost of meat.

That means consumers are paying twice -- in subsidies and higher food costs -- for something that, to truly displace gasoline, would require using every farmable acre in the nation for fuel-producing crops. Environmentalists can't really think that's desirable.
Regarding hybrid cars, their buyers are discovering that their relatively small mileage advantages take a decade or more to compensate for their higher price. As subsidies decline, they have fewer buyers.

Hydrogen is the most likely (and cleanest) alternative, but we'll get to that in a second.

It's worth nothing that, if we had let government "experts" tell Henry Ford what to use for fuel, we'd be raising whales for their oil along the entire coast.

2) Lift the restrictions on drilling for oil along our coasts and in the Arctic. Environmentally unsound, you say? Well, how sound is it to keep shipping our dollars overseas to pay the Saudis for what we still have plenty of at home?

We won't really be seen as being serious about lessening our dependence on foreign oil until we actually act to lessen our dependence on foreign oil.

I know it's tough for some people to grasp, but there it is.
True, many will say we can achieve the same end by raising the gasoline tax by a couple of bucks or boosting mileage standards for cars to 50 mpg.

What isn't said is that the cost of both those proposals will come straight out of Joe Consumer's pockets, directly for the gas tax and indirectly from far higher costs of shipping goods and the greatly increased price of new cars.

I understand that's a price activists are willing to pay -- or, rather, make someone else pay -- but they are hardly being up- front about it with taxpayers.

3) Wind power is fine, but it will never come close to meeting our national demand for energy. We've also seen how vulnerable it is to opposition based solely on aesthetics.

Thus, we should build nuclear power plants, and lots of them.
Conservatives are hardly alone in recommending this -- more environmentalists are seeing the necessity, too.

The good news is that this effort is well under way.
As many as 80 new reactors, using standardized designs that yield far less waste than older models, are on the drawing boards and entering the permitting process.

There are two ways to clean up a "dirty" coal-fired power plant. Since coal is our most plentiful fossil fuel, we'd be nuts not to use it, but incentives (not penalties) to burn it more cleanly provide the way to aid conversion.

The other way to clean them up is to shut the dirtiest of them down, but the only way we can do that without hurting the economy is to have something ready to replace them.

Building those reactors will accomplish that, and eventually lead to my final point:

4) If hydrogen, a common element whose combustion yields only water as a by-product, is to be the fuel of the future, we have solve the physics first.

Right now, it costs more energy to produce a given unit of hydrogen than we get out of burning it. We need a plentiful, relatively cheap and nonpolluting source of power to produce enough pure H to be useful in reducing our dependence on oil, coal and natural gas.
So, see 3) above.

We're not going to "govern" ourselves out of our problems. We can, however, let the genius of capitalism address them, with far higher odds of success.

And at a lower cost, to boot.

M.D. Harmon is an editorial page writer and editor. He can be contacted at 791-6482 or at:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The nice thing about such foolish denier holdouts as MD Harmon is that every time they open their mouths (or type at their keyboards) the day comes closer that they will hang them selves. In this case, I think it likely that reality will make it quite apparent that such "conservatives" have their heads up their you-know-whats when it comes to Climate change. (perhaps in the guise of another Katrina-like weather event?).
Harmon seems behind the curve with respect to realizing that changing our society to make it more efficient/less wasteful will save money rather than impoverishing us. Furthermore, we have a massive trade deficit that needs reversing. The huge challenge created by having to move away from a fossil fuel based economy is an opportunity to reverse this trade deficit by innovation - something that America can be very good at, given the proper motivation and leadership.