The Trouble with 526

There are a variety of competing interests in the green energy movement these days. From old friends like renewable energy advocates and environmentalists who used to be allies but now find that solar arrays are displacing wildlife and wind farms are harmful to birds; to national security hawks who want to decrease our dependence on foreign oil and groups advocating for fuel development standards that address greenhouse gas concerns.

We can see the first the first scenario taking place in New Mexico where the 460 mile SunZia transmission line that will link solar and wind power from central New Mexico to energy poor cities in Arizona will cross two national wildlife refuges, one of which is the Bosque del Apache, home to the Sandhill Crane. “We have to connect the sun of the deserts and the winds of the plains to places where people live,” says Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. But Johanna Wald, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council adds, “There is no free lunch when it comes to meeting our energy needs.”

There are no easy solutions to these problems. But key decision makers need to understand the full context of where we are and where we need to go. If we place too much emphasis on consequences today, we lose the ability to take determined and thoughtful steps towards a sustainable future. If the CO2 levels rise as some dire predictions forecast, the Sandhill Crane will be as much a loser as humans, no matter how intact the birds’ habitat remains. (I have a Sandhill Crane solution, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Which brings us to the problematic “526.” 526 is section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which prohibits the Federal purchase of dirty fuels (such as liquid coal, tar sands and oil shale) whose lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions are higher than conventional fuels. I get it. Honestly, I do. But we need to view the transmogrification of America’s problematic petroleum paradigm as a holistic problem, encompassing an array of valid concerns and competing objectives. Difficult, values-based decisions will need to be made, but if our leaders do so with a sustainable future in mind, then our overall energy position is advanced even if there are short term losses.

Pick your best case scenario for the global energy picture. How do you see the world in 100 years providing and using energy? I recently wrote about one possibility:

I envision a world in which enormous solar arrays deployed in space efficiently collect the sun’s rays 24 hours a day and beam power via lasers or microwaves to rectifying antennas and transmitting stations on earth. These transmitting stations wirelessly transmit that energy like radio waves and wireless networks are transmitted today. Electricity will be ubiquitous and accessible. Our cars, and power-requiring devices will simply connect to the electricity the way our radios and telephones do today. We will pull our cars out of the garage and they will connect, or plug in, like wireless technology today and simply “go.” All the world’s citizens will have electricity from a completely ecologically renewable source.

What I didn’t mention in that Pollyannic vision is that I still have no reasonable idea of how America’s weapons of war would operate. How does the United States fly F-35s, drive M-1A Abrams tanks and Humvees; and how do we float the non-nuclear portion of our navy if we do not burn fuel? With that vital national security component in mind, I simply cannot fathom any way that the United States military will be able to carry out its mission of protecting and defending the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic without some kind of liquid, transportable, available, high-energy content fuel to power our war machines. Even an optimist like me has to acknowledge that we won’t be running the Department of Defense on lollipops and smiles anytime soon.

However, our current dependence on foreign oil makes the U.S. military vulnerable to supply disruptions and price fluctuations which limit political and foreign policy decision making options. And yet this is a situation which doesn’t have to be so. It is possible to leverage the natural resources we have at our disposal on our way to the 22nd Century.

An avid supporter of effective land management, it is somewhat ironic for me to now write that beneath Illinois rests more available power in coal than Saudi Arabia ever possessed in oil. If we could develop a way to power the Department of Defense with this ready and available resource we could unshackle our military from the bondage of foreign petroleum. But it will require strong, visionary leaders to pursue this course of action in the face of valid environmental concerns.

Does coal to liquid technology have problems? Of course and one of those is that it’s dirtier than what we currently use. However, the development of this technology is a viable solution to a national security problem we have now and for the foreseeable future. Is coal to liquids, or are other dirty technologies, our desired end game? No. We need to boldly plan for a world with 50% more occupants than it currently has. We need to anticipate how we will feed and care for those people and we must work towards a future in which we no longer need to burn or consume any finite resource. But we cannot Harry Potter our way into a world that doesn’t use some kind of fossil fuel for our military (“Expecto Petroleum” doesn’t work—I tried.) As such, it makes the most sense to power our current military machine with resources that contribute to, rather than detract from, our country’s long term national security.

The problem with 526 is that it fails to recognize the interplay of many vital issues as we undo a century of fossil fuel exploration and exploitation. It ties our own hands behind our backs as the Defense Department tries to reach the same end state the environmentalist wish to reach. But DoD has a mission to accomplish along the way: to defend the right of the environmentalists to advocate for their position.

Published in: on April 24, 2009 at 10:52 am  Leave a Comment  

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