Meeting America’s energy needs through diversity

Last week President Bush offered a number of proposals to help reduce America’s dependence on foreign sources of energy, particularly from politically volatile countries.

Along with conservation and improving efficiency, as he has noted, it is critical that we expand and diversify our domestic means of energy production.

The President has asked Congress for an energy bill that would meet four key objectives: Provide incentives to improve conservation using technology; improve domestic production in environmentally sensitive ways; diversify our energy supply; and improve the reliability of energy delivery systems, i.e. the nation’s power grid, which is outdated and stretched to capacity.

His suggestions include making closed military bases available for new oil refineries, as the United States has seen none built in three decades despite significant growth in population and consumption. (One project, the Arizona Clean Fuels Refinery near Yuma, is already underway, although not on a military site.)

We must also recognize the burden of cumbersome federal regulation, which has prevented the construction of any new nuclear energy plants in the past 25 years.

A great deal of effort and resources have been poured into technologies, like wind and solar power, that hold the promise of safe and environmentally clean electricity generation. From FY 1973 through FY 2004, the United States spent about $16 billion (in 2004 constant dollars) on renewable energy research and development.

However, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, it is reasonable to expect that, even with continued advances in solar technology, renewable energy will only increase its share of production to meet six percent of our energy needs in the next two decades.

Therefore, it is only realistic to focus for now on conventional energy sources, such as fossil fuels and nuclear power, which supply virtually all of our transportation needs and a good deal of our electricity as well.

Given this reality, I share the President’s belief that one way to counter our dependence on foreign oil is to pursue development options such as limited (and environmentally responsible) exploration and development in the area set aside for it on the North Slope of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

The technological advances of recent years will help make exploration less harmful to the environment than in the past.

For example, drilling pads are roughly 80 percent smaller than they were just a generation ago; high-tech drilling methods now allow for access to oil deposits as far as six miles away from a single, compact drilling site.

Moreover, the environmental surface impact of such operations would be much smaller than required for alternative sources of energy production still in development.

While producing the oil necessary to generate 50 megawatts of electricity can be confined to less than half an acre of land, generating the same amount from solar would require photovoltaic cells on as many as 1,000 acres or the construction of 100-200 foot wind towers on as many as 4,000 acres.

If the goal is to minimize the amount of land taken up by energy production, oil has a clear advantage.

We must move beyond the false choice between conservation and expanding supply. If we want to continue to enjoy cleaner air and economic growth, we must embrace them both.

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