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We're Running on Empty! You're Full of It!

April 24, 2005

Do today's high gasoline prices foreshadow a severe energy shortage? If so, what can be done about it? Opinion asked Peter W. Huber, co-author of "The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy," and Paul Roberts, author of "The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World," to debate the energy-supply question by e-mail. The editors -- with each party's final approval -- condensed and edited the exchange.

On 3/22/05 at 11:54 a.m.

Roberts wrote:

We're definitely headed for a shortage of cheap energy. Despite the assurances of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, oil is getting harder to find. Today's high prices aren't short-term. More generally, the prices we've traditionally paid for any energy have been artificially low because they excluded "external" costs like political instability or climate change. Once we start paying to remove the carbon from coal at a power plant, even California's electricity rates will seem a bargain. Optimists insist that rising energy prices will bring on alternatives, like hydrogen or solar. But these technologies are decades from being economically viable -- and won't be without a fundamental shift in the way we reward, and punish, energy decisions.

On 3/23/05 at 7:11 a.m.

Huber wrote:

Paul, you bring the passion, I'll supply some numbers. Humanity currently consumes almost 70 BBOEs (billion barrels of oil or equivalents) every year, about half of it oil, half other stuff. That's hardly a drop out of the planetary bucket. The U.S. has 1,000 BBOEs of coal in the ground, and even more uranium. Tar sands in Alberta, Canada, and Venezuela hold more than 3,000 BBOEs. We already know how to tap these vast resources, and our technology keeps improving. If we choose, we can economically dig, dam, pump and purify all the energy we like. China will. Lethargy -- Europe's policy -- is our other option.

On 3/24/05 2:01 p.m.

Roberts wrote:

The question isn't how much fuel is left, but the costs of using it. Tar sands and heavy oil are plentiful, but they're larded with carbon. (Editor's note: Energy derived from burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide and many pollutants.) While we can remove the carbon in a laboratory, doing so on a global scale would require a system bigger than the world's steel and iron industries combined. Can the market build this system? Yes, but only if we provide the right incentives -- by making carbon a cost rather than a freebie, which it is now.

On 3/24/05 3:48 p.m.

Huber wrote:

Oil is getting harder to find, prices will stay high -- but plentiful supplies don't matter? Paul, you don't foresee shortage. You want to create it -- with a new carbon tax. But the energy tax President Clinton proposed to a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1993 went nowhere. Sen. Hillary Clinton, maybe, in 2009? Meanwhile, Canada and Venezuela are already producing a million barrels a day of tar-sand oil, for under $15 a barrel, and they can expand production indefinitely. They will.

On 3/24/05 at 4:39 p.m.

Roberts wrote:

A coherent carbon strategy (not Clinton's) does the opposite of creating shortages. Companies are taxed for carbon emissions, but the penalty starts low and rises gradually, over several decades, and firms can cut emissions any way they want, including buying credits from other companies. As carbon gets costlier, companies strive to cut it faster and more cheaply, a market dynamic that will yield better efficiency and the decarbonization technologies that will make your tar-sand oil truly feasible.

On 3/25/05 at 11:53 a.m.

Huber wrote:

Paul, get real! Congress won't touch your carbon tax because most Americans hate the idea. And efficiency, sad to say, just doesn't curb consumption. More efficient guts under the hood make Humvees, dirt bikes and monster fridges affordable; minuscule fluorescent bulbs now light our watt-guzzling plasma TVs. Per unit of energy used, we produce twice as much gross domestic product today as we did in 1950s -- and consume three times as much energy. Efficient new technology invariably delivers new uses faster than old savings.

On 3/25/05 at 2:52 p.m.

Roberts wrote:

Peter, get honest. No serious player says efficiency is the solution. Also, the real reason Congress loathes a carbon tax isn't because "most Americans hate" it (nice try), but because powerful coal interests and utilities see the tax as inherently anti-coal -- and it is, given current "dirty" coal technology. But suppose we combined the tax with a serious research and development push for technology that lets us decarbonize -- and thus rehabilitate -- coal? We'd speed development of a "clean-coal" technology.

On 3/25/05 at 7:12 p.m.

Huber wrote:

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