The Oil and the Glory

If oil is making Americans independent, do they still need clean-tech?

If oil is making Americans independent, do they still need clean-tech?

Let’s say that the new conventional wisdom is correct — that we ought to dispense of worries of resource scarcity, and embrace a dawning age of U.S. oil abundance and self-sufficiency. If we ask ourselves what that means, one conclusion is the apparent elimination of a central rationale for the development of clean energy technologies — that the U.S. needs them to shed its reliance on unreliable oil imports from nefarious Middle East nations.

Clean-tech must be scrutinized through a political lens, because by and large, none of the technologies stands on its own feet as yet in the marketplace. They require political support to survive. Let’s take a look at the calculus for clean-tech.

Industry analysts and journalists assert almost weekly (like Citigroup’s Ed Morse and reporters at the New York Times) that U.S. shale oil and deepwater reservoirs, plus Canadian oil sands, are making the U.S. virtually self-sufficient in oil. (I myself have urged caution in this exuberance.)

In response, President Barack Obama said last week that oil drilling is not the "be-all, end-all strategy" of being energy self-sufficient, but rather that the U.S. requires "all of the above," meaning solar, wind and biofuels, too. He said this because he wants to retain federal support for cleantech companies and research, but is being pummeled by opponents who call such assistance a boondoggle, and accuse him of hostility to oil. The other reason he said this is that gasoline prices in much of the country are well over $4 a gallon.

Already, politics have knocked out another pillar of the clean-energy foundation — the push to hold down CO2 emissions. Since there is no longer apparent majority U.S. political will to stave off global warming, clean-tech has seemed to lose that logic for public support.

Now goes the argument of energy security: If the forecasts of a U.S. bonanza are accurate, biofuels, advanced batteries and other technologies will be unneeded for the purpose of energy freedom from the Middle East.

With planetary collapse and energy security eliminated from the calculus, clean-tech would be back to basics — its sole apparent remaining case for public policy support, at least in the U.S., would be the popularity of things clean. Promoters of these technologies would either have to make that case, or become cost-competitive and survive in the marketplace.

I exchanged emails with Citigroup’s Morse on this topic over the weekend. He suggested that economics are moving front and center in clean-tech, but that the clean narrative has not vanished.

"The reduction in security urgency can help provide a sort of neutral playing field for letting the market opt for what’s the most workable," Morse said. He said, "There are clear public goods aspects to energy that require government involvement. But getting that right has always been hard." Morse:

I can see a President pushing clean hydrocarbon energy as a bridge to a lower carbon intensive future. Certainly we are going to see accelerated retirements of coal fired power generating plants no matter what. The issue here is what a President or law or regulation can do to accelerate it even further and to push favored solutions.

We should also see the market pushing toward conversion of vehicles to natural gas. I think the truck fleet is seeing this happened. Once there are distribution points for trucks, they’re will be definition be distribution points for passenger vehicles [as well].

I also exchanged emails with Michael Klare, a professor at Hampshire College and author of The Race for What’s Left, a book on the scramble for these unconventional hydrocarbons that was just published by Metropolitan. Klare suggested that unconventional drilling may end up being curbed. Klare:

Much of the energy boom involves fracking or other forms of unconventional production (oil shale, oil sands) that involve the use of large amounts of water and resulting wastewater disposition. With increased water scarcity in many areas due to climate change, water availability may be a limiting factor to energy production; growing concern over the safety of drinking water will be another. So while the alternative energy argument may lose steam, other aspects of the environmental discussion are likely to gain momentum.

Ultimately, Klare asserts, the drilling will have to do more than increase energy security. "For the boom to win widespread converts," he said, "it has to result in cheaper prices at the gas pump, and so far that’s not happening; more drilling in U.S. wilderness areas will not change that either."