Achieving real energy independence

Energy independence must mean more than further drilling and mining.

On my recent trip to the Minnesota State Fair, between the Sweet Martha’s Cookie booth and the giant slide, I saw the phrase “energy independence” on every booth, button and banner for political candidates from around the state.

In this political season, we can’t escape the idea of energy independence pitched by politicians, featured in the news media, and debated around about the dinner table. It’s a popular idea that combines the beloved value of American independence with something we rely on everyday. But can we ever be truly independent of other countries for our energy?

A short answer would have to be no. We will never be independent of other countries if we continue to rely on fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal at our current energy consumption rate. The long answer is that energy independence must be more than a code phrase for further oil exploration and coal mining within our borders. True independence will mean independence from all fossil fuels.

The concept of energy independence is far from new. When Jimmy Carter declared in 1979 “this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 – never” we imported 6 million barrels of petroleum a day; today, that number is over 12 million barrels. In fact, every President since Richard Nixon has made declarations, set timelines, and publicly pursued the goal of energy independence. Yet, each year, our imports climb.

Energy independence is such a popular idea because, though the United States is just about 5 percent of the world’s population, we use over 25 percent of the world’s energy.

The United States has few oil resources left that even begin to address our increasing rate of consumption. With a transportation system that is centered on personal automobiles with the worst average mile-per-gallon rates in the world, we wastefully use the most oil of any nation.

And with nations like China and India developing so fast, the demand and price for the world’s remaining oil and natural gas supplies will skyrocket.

In the midst of rising oil and natural gas prices, some people are jumping on the energy independence bandwagon by advocating an increase in our use of coal to generate electricity.

Coal industry marketers are touting experimental new technologies as “clean coal”, a home-grown solution to our energy problems overseas. Some are even promoting turning coal into a liquid diesel fuel for our cars. But these new technologies do not change the fact that coal is one of the dirtiest energy sources human kind has ever known.

Pollution from coal causes a wide variety of problems like acid rain and asthma in children, and it is a leading contributor to global warming. While there are promising new technologies in coal gasification, approving new coal plants sets a dangerous precedent when we have a growing and capable wind, solar and biomass energy industry that is capable of filling our future energy needs.

Right now there is an aptly-named coal rush going on to build more than 150 new coal-fired power plants in the United States over the next decade. If built, these plants would increase our global warming emissions to unacceptable levels.

Should we rely on coal, an energy source from the 19th century, to power our needs in the 21st century? This is not real energy independence – this is furthering our dependence on a finite, dirty energy source.

True independence requires less reliance on fossil, as well as foreign energy sources. Energy independence does not and cannot mean more drilling and mining here in the United States.

By developing renewable energy sources within our borders that will create jobs and a healthy environment, we will also become less reliant on foreign and fossil energy. The goal of energy independence needs to be clean energy independence.

A notable quote says that there are no silver bullets to many problems, but there are silver BBs. If we develop the social will to expand our solar, biomass and wind power potentials, promote efficiency, and transform our transportation systems, each of these solutions together will be a substantial step forward in the goal of independence – not just from foreign countries, but from dirty fossil fuels, too.

If we are serious about achieving the goal of energy independence, let’s not stop at foreign oil. Let’s break our fossil fuel addiction to gain independence for ourselves and future generations.

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected].