Oil, and foreign oil in particular, has been a favorite whipping boy for American politicians since the 1970s. They say that we are “addicted” to oil, that oil fosters terrorism and that we can “win the oil endgame.” While those claims are effective at rousing the masses, heres the reality: The world isnt using too much oil. Its not using enough.
The world now consumes about 85 million barrels of oil per day. That consumption has resulted in unprecedented levels of mobility and affluence. The correlation between oil use and wealth is so close as to be inarguable. Yes, the U.S. is among the worlds biggest per capita consumers of oil, but that petroleum has made the American economy into a powerhouse. Increasing oil consumption among the rural poor would have major benefits: It would help preserve rain forests and endangered species habitat; more importantly, it would help save the lives of hundreds of thousands of impoverished people who die premature deaths every year due to indoor air pollution caused by burning biomass.
People living in rural poverty have no choice but to cook their food with locally available fuels. For tens of millions of these people, the only choice is wood, which often results in the destruction of forests needed to sustain endangered species. Consider the case of the mountain gorillas living in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who are under siege due to demand for wood from the people living around the park. Whats the best way to preserve the forest? Local conservationists agree the fastest way is to provide the locals with butane, propane or other fuels derived from oil so that they quit burning wood and charcoal.
If oil didnt exist, wed have to invent it. No other substance can compare to oil in terms of energy density, flexibility, cost and convenience. None of this is to deny the many problems caused by the global oil business. Oil drilling and oil spillsboth onshore and offshorehave had significant environmental effects including wildlife kills, habitat destruction and serious land- and water-contamination problems. And the risks of oil drilling were made apparent again on Thursday when a giant oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon, sank after it was hit by a deadly explosion and fire. Eleven rig workers are still missing. The costs associated with oil are many. But when compared with the fuels that might replace oil, particularly plant-based biofuels, petroleum outshines them all.
Increased use of clean-burning refined oil products would not only preserve forests, it would also provide immediate health benefits to impoverished people who are sickened, or die prematurely, from indoor air pollution caused by the burning of biomass. World-wide, as many as 1.6 million people per year, the majority of them women, are dying premature deaths due to this type of pollution. Indoor air pollution hits women and girls particularly hard because they spend more time indoors, cooking over open fires, than their male counterparts.
If environmentalists in the rich countries are truly concerned about protecting rare forest-dwelling animals and improving the lives of the rural poor, they should be arguing for increased use of oil, not less.
The vilification of oil is part of the broader myth that the U.S. and other countries should stop using all hydrocarbonscoal, oil and natural gas. But nine out of 10 units of energy that we consume come from hydrocarbons. And there are no technologies available today, or on the near horizon, that can provide the always-available power that we demand, in the vast quantities that we need, at prices that we can afford.
That can be proven by looking at coal, which runs a close second to oil in terms of negative publicity. In March 2009, some 2,500 demonstrators gathered outside the U.S. Capitols coal-fired power plant in Washington to voice their support for drastic cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions. In 2008, Al Gore declared, “It is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants.”
The problems caused by coal mining, coal transport and coal combustion could fill a small library. And the recent deaths of the coal miners in West Virginia are just the latest example of the toll exacted by coal. But electricity is an essential element of modernity. Countries that can provide cheap and reliable electric power to their citizens can grow their economies and create wealth. Those that cant, cant. And ever since 1882, when Thomas Edison began burning coal to produce electricity from the worlds first central power station in Manhattan, coal has been fueling the electrification of the planet.
In 2006, coal-fired generators produced about 41% of the worlds electricity. (In the U.S., coal provides about 48% of total electricity generation.) And by 2030, the International Energy Agency expects coal to be providing 44% of the worlds electricity.
That expected increase in coal use is due to soaring global demand for electricity. Between 1990 and 2007, electricity consumption increased by nearly 68%. Thats nearly three times as fast as the growth in oil demand over that time period. Making the problem even more daunting: the enormous scale of the worlds coal consumption. On an average day, the world consumes the equivalent of 66 million barrels of oil in the form of coal. In energy terms, thats about equal to the daily oil output of eight Saudi Arabias.
There are other reasons for coals popularity: for most countries it is the lowest-cost option for electricity production, it is abundant, and the majority of global reserves are not controlled by an OPEC-like entity that can attempt to restrain production. At current rates of production, the U.S. has more than 200 years of proven coal reserves. Meanwhile, Indias coal reserves are expected to last more than 100 years while Russia and Australia have reserves that are expected to last nearly 500 years and 200 years, respectively.
Few countries provide a better example of coals irreplaceability than Denmark. Indeed, while many renewable energy boosters claim that Denmarks embrace of wind energy is a model to be emulated, the data show that doing so would be a big mistake. Furthermore, Denmark, like the U.S. and many other countries, is still heavily reliant on coal for electricity production.
Between 1999 and 2007, the amount of electricity produced from Denmarks wind turbines grew by about 136%, rising from three billion kilowatt-hours to some 7.1 billion kilowatt-hours. By the beginning of 2007, wind power was accounting for about 13.4% of all the electricity generated in Denmark. And yet in 2007, Denmarks coal consumption was exactly the same as it was back in 1999. Denmarks coal consumption in 2007 was nearly the same as it was back in 1981. And between 1981 and 2007, Denmarks natural-gas consumption went from zero to more than 400 million cubic feet per day.
To be fair, Denmark has kept its overall carbon-dioxide emissions relatively flat. In 1990, Denmark emitted a total of 50.7 million tons of carbon dioxide. By 2007, the countrys emissions totaled 50.6 million tons, a reduction of 0.1%. But that slight reduction in emissions is likely the result of the countrys near-zero population growth and its exorbitant energy taxes. Denmark has one of the slowest-growing populations in Europe. Between 1998 and 2008, the population grew by just 200,000 people. During that same time period, the U.S. population jumped by about 33 million people.
The Danes pay some of the highest electricity rates in the world. In 2008, Danish residential customers were paying $0.38 per kilowatt-houror nearly four times as much as U.S. residential customers, who were paying about $0.10 per kilowatt-hour.
While taxes are a major reason why Denmarks electricity rates are so high, its also clear that the countrys adoption of wind energy has been costly. The International Energy Agency estimates that electricity produced from onshore wind projects over the next few years will cost about $94 per megawatt-hour. Thats far more than the cost for conventional coal-fired generation ($69 per megawatt-hour), natural-gas-fired generation ($78) and nuclear power ($72).
Nor is there any evidence to show that Denmarks rush to embrace wind energy has reduced carbon-dioxide emissions. Energinet.dk, the operator of Denmarks natural gas and electricity grids, makes no claims to that effect. In fact, Energinet.dks 2008 environmental report shows that carbon-dioxide levels from electricity generation in 2007 were at about the same level as they were back in 1990, before the country began its frenzied construction of wind turbines. And the report forecasts no decreases in carbon dioxide emissions through 2017.
While Denmark continues to be a poster child for advocates of wind energy, heres a little-known fact: The country is also an oil producer and exporter. And some of that Danish oilabout 5,000 barrels per daycomes to the U.S. In 2008, Denmark was one of 83 countries that sold oil to America.
When discussing energy policy, lawmakers and regulators should have one primary goal: making energy as cheap and abundant as possible. We should also continue increasing energy efficiency and reducing the pollution associated with energy production and consumption. Fortunately, those things are happening. Over the past three decades or so, the U.S. has been among the best in the world at reducing the energy intensity of its economy. Between 1980 and 2006, Americas energy intensitythe amount of energy needed to produce $1 of gross domestic product—fell by about 42%. Among the major countries of the world, only one did better: China, where energy intensity fell by 63%.
While there is broad, bipartisan support for increasing energy efficiency, that alone is not enough. We must accept the essentiality of energy, and in particular, the essentiality of electricity. We must depoliticize energy and move beyond the petty recriminations and small-minded approach to the worlds most important commodity. If we can achieve that, the U.S. and other countries can get busy providing more energy to more people. More energy will allow us to produce more power. And we are, all of us, power hungry.
Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303491304575187934172406168.html?mod=WSJ_ArtsEnt_LS_Books