Our energy dilemma 

Still no real direction in Montana or the nation

As the nation watches the continuing mega-disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, one seminal truth continues to pervade America's energy policy—namely, we don't have one. Millions of dollars have been spent to fund endless seminars, studies, reports and calculations, but when it comes down to it, our nation's approach to energy remains much the same as it has been for the last century—finding the supply to meet the endlessly increasing demand. But now, at least for the moment in this hectic land of short attention spans, we are semi-focused on the true costs of the failed plan to simply keep drilling, pumping, mining and burning whatever we can domestically while continuing to import and use energy at a breakneck pace while hopelessly polluting our atmosphere.

For those with long memories, our current dilemma seems like déjà vu from the '70s, when Jimmy Carter was president and the nation was facing its first energy crisis due to the Arab oil embargo. Suddenly, our comfortable life of "fill 'er up" for as little as 19 cents a gallon fell to pieces as motorists waited hours in long lines for a precious tank of gas, hoping the pumps wouldn't run dry before they got there. Carter, being a practical sort of guy, went on television to tell Americans to conserve energy instead of caving in to the pressure of the embargo. "Turn down your thermostats," he urged, and "put on a sweater." For his sage advice, he got summarily stabbed in the back by his fellow Democrats and lost his bid for re-election to Ronald Reagan, who told us to "stand tall in the saddle again" and continue to consume like crazy.

It took a little while, but eventually, all the small engine vehicles that came of age to combat the effects of the embargo's drastic effect on fuel prices began to bloat into bigger and bigger engines and vehicles. We're still on that foolish path, clogging the roads with SUVs so large they barely get double-digit mileage. And while politicians of all stripes continue to parrot the worn-out call for "energy independence," the reality is that 35 long years after the oil embargo, we're not one step closer to that goal than we were back then.

Even worse, we're waging incredibly expensive wars that are busting the Treasury Department to ensure that our imported energy supply continues. As many have pointed out, given the cost in dollars, lives and materiel, it would probably make more sense to simply buy the foreign oil than try to secure the reserves of other nations through force of arms, especially since that course of action seems to be failing rather dramatically.

In the meantime, Congress has stalled yet again on meaningful energy reform and is absolutely running away from efforts to address the significant environmental costs of the pollution that accompanies our shameful consumption. Just this week, for instance, the newly appointed replacement for West Virginia's Sen. Robert Byrd pledged he would not vote for any bill that seeks to place a cap or a price on carbon emissions. As part of the so-called "coal states," this stance simply says we will go on, as we have in the past, mining and burning coal because it's there, because it affects local economies, and because we, as a people, have not yet come to realize the real costs associated with using that dirty fossil fuel.

Here in Montana and in mountain ranges across the globe, glaciers are continuing to disappear at an alarming pace. The world for our children will not be the world we knew, and more's the pity. With the disappearance of glaciers go all that relied on them—including the ecosystems and the downstream water users. Less water means less dilution, hastening the demise of our other short-sighted and failed policy that "the solution to pollution is dilution." But unless you're directly affected, these so-called "energy externalities" remain of little interest to the general populace as long as their air conditioners continue to run.

We also found out this week that China has now surpassed the United States to become the world's largest energy consumer. Although China has challenged the findings of the International Energy Agency (IEA), the direction they're headed seems clear. Alarmingly, a decade ago the United States consumed twice as much energy as China. What it means, according to a spokesman for the IEA, is the world is headed for "a new age in the history of energy." Indeed, with China's rising economic power and the sheer force of its 1.35 billion people (exceeding the United States by a full billion people), unless something changes drastically, the breakneck pace of demand will do to the price of energy what it has already done to the price of cement and steel, while exacerbating the impacts on the environment.

Speaking of the environment, this week also brought news that Earth's upper atmosphere, called the thermosphere, has suffered what scientists are calling a "collapse" that "sets a new Space Age record." Our best scientists are dumbfounded and can't explain why the enormous atmospheric contraction occurred. One culprit may be carbon dioxide, which continues to increase in the atmosphere as a by-product of energy consumption. "But the numbers don't quite add up," said John Emmert of the Naval Research Lab. "Even when we take CO2 into account using our best understanding of how it operates as a coolant, we cannot fully explain the thermosphere's collapse."

Oil and methane bubbling uncontrollably from the sea floor, the collapse of the upper atmosphere, and an increase in global energy consumption and pollution do not bode well for the future. If we can't change our intransigent, self-serving politicians, a largely head-in-the-sand awareness of the consequences, and the continuing wrong-headed approach to simply meeting the demand, we are literally toast.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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