Future of energy could shy away from fossil fuels

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three- part series on energy.

This week’s record-high gas prices are leading some U experts to analyze other energy options that may be in the future of the United States.

The Bush administration’s energy policy includes promoting conservation and efficiency, increasing domestic production, diversifying the energy supply and modernizing the energy infrastructure.

Two of the administration’s stated target alternative energies are hydrogen- powered vehicles and nuclear fusion, according to whitehouse.gov.

“In order to make sure the entrepreneurial spirit is strong in America, we need affordable, reliable, secure supplies of energy,” Bush said in a March 9 visit to Ohio. “Higher prices at the gas pump and rising home heating bills and the possibility of blackout are legitimate concerns for all Americans. And all these uncertainties about energy supply are a drag on our economy.”

Bush put together an energy task force and has taken what he called the first steps toward addressing the issue.

But some U students and experts are unsatisfied by the administration’s statements and said they need to do more.

U student Daniel Brinton said the federal government should increase funding for the development of alternative fuel sources to cope with the increasing price of crude oil.

“Are we going to wait until it reaches $3 per gallon to focus federal funding behind alternative energy sources?” Brinton asked. “Why are we still dependent on fossil fuels rather than taking up clean coal initiatives?”

Kevin Perry teaches a course on atmospheric chemistry and air pollution where he examines energy use policies and has students write papers analyzing alternative energy sources.

Perry said the world’s fossil-fuel reserves could sustain just 40 years of oil use and 300 years worth of coal.

Coping with limited

fossil fuels

“We are dealing with finite resources that will eventually run out,” Perry said. “Economics experts say as materials become more scarce, we’ll just have to look harder and pay more, but that’s a very different view from geologists who say we’re running out.”

Richard Peterson, who teaches a course on alternative energy, agreed.

“I think we’re currently going to be in significant trouble if we have this fantasy we can continue to use fossil fuels,” he said. “Even if one thought fossil fuels were wonderful, we’re going to run out. We have to switch to sustainables-the question is do we want to do it the easy way or hard way.”

Oil has traditionally been extracted according to demand, meaning when it was discovered it wasn’t all drawn immediately. “If you pump oil too fast, you wreck the oil reservoir,” Peterson said. “There’s evidence that’s happening in Saudi Arabia, so in the long run, you can’t pump out all the oil you could have pumped out.”

Perry said a crisis has been reached where production is no longer capable of meeting the demand.

The United States is currently paying $49.14 per barrel of oil, but Perry said, “$100 per barrel is easily within our sights. We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels before it’s too late.”

Peterson agreed.

“We are definitely not only at peak production, but this is probably the most production there will ever be. We’re at the top. We can expect production to fall globally because there’s always been an assumption we’ll find more and more oil-well, we’re not.”

However, Peterson said prices are climbing for a different reason.

“Oil prices are high right now because there are enormous profits being made by the fossil-fuel industry,” he said.

European countries see much higher oil prices because the government puts $2 to $3 of taxes on each gallon.

“The recent price hikes here, to the best of my ability to determine, are not due to putting them into social problems; they’re for profit,” Peterson said.

Perry said under the current system, the highest bidders essentially own the oil wherever it may be, which is why the United States has such a stake in Mideast oil.

Dependency on Mideast oil

“Over the past three years, America’s energy consumption has increased by more than 3 percent, yet our domestic energy production has decreased by 2 percent. That means relying more on energy from foreign countries,” Bush said in his March 9 speech. “We now import more than half our oil from abroad…I believe that creates a national security issue and an economic security issue for the United States.”

Some students also worry about U.S. dependency on foreign oil in light of recent wars and the impact of U.S. policy, especially in the Middle East, which possesses 75 percent of the world’s oil.

“Our overriding policy should be breaking free of Mideast oil,” said U student Jed Brinton. “The administration should consider alternative energy and stop being an impediment to what could happen…It’s wrong that our policy toward the Saudis is based on oil.”

U student Mike Purcell, who is also in the military, said the increasing gas prices give the U.S. a good opportunity to move away from Mideast oil and promote things like hybrid, electric or natural-gas vehicles.

Bush said he plans to increase the nation’s self-sufficiency by emphasizing the use of coal, which he said will last another 250 years, thanks to its abundance.

“I believe by utilizing the brains of America…we can come up with ways to burn coal cleanly,” he said. “I know it’s hard. Most people have said burning coal without creating pollution was as likely as the Red Sox winning the World Series. Anything is possible.”

[email protected]hronicle.utah.edu