Richard Heinberg on the politics of energy policy

How can America lessen its dependency on foreign oil? Can our country come to terms with climate change? Richard Heinberg, one of our time's foremost advocates for energy sustainability, explains.

FLORIDA, October 21, 2012 — There are few issues so important to America’s future as finding sustainable sources of energy.   

Throughout the ages, fossil fuels have been used for everything from powering furnaces to producing electricity. It is all but impossible to deny that our society is overly dependent on nonrenewable energy.

One would also have a difficult time denying that coal, natural gas, and oil have allowed America’s industrial engine to function for generations on end. While it is unmistakable that these have brought prosperity, their environmental ramifications often come at too high a cost.

This is why untold millions believe that now is time for a serious change in American energy policy. 

Richard Heinberg is one of our era’s foremost advocates for energy sustainability. He has written about the necessity to look beyond fossil fuels, and educated more than a few about the subject.  

Sitting down with me, Mr. Heinberg explains why energy issues have become such a polarizing presence in American politics, whether or not climate change is a serious problem, how conservationists might lead the way in reducing our country’s dependence on foreign oil, and much more.     


Joseph F. Cotto: This is surely one of the most polarized eras in American politics, especially as far as energy issues are concerned. Not so long ago, finding consensus on the best energy policy was not such a partisan debacle. Why do you believe that the times have changed?

Richard Heinberg: Energy is always political. It’s at the heart of everything we do, so questions about what energy sources we use and how we use them are also questions about economic and social power. Today we are at a crossroads with regard to energy. The sources that gave us tremendous GDP growth during the 20th century are losing their economic punch and are putting the planet in peril. So our energy future is up for grabs—and there are no easy solutions. That’s a prescription for partisan posturing, which generates far more heat than light: the level of energy literacy being displayed in the political debate is absolutely abysmal. Evidently the truth has no constituency. 

What we hear instead are two competing myths—that of fossil fuel abundance (“drill baby drill”) and that of green growth. The truth is, we face harsh realities and hard choices: the era of cheap, abundant energy is over. But almost nobody in politics will talk about this. As a result, the realities are likely to get harsher and the choices harder.

Cotto: Global warming is a highly contentious subject. Many claim that energy policy has no real impact on the environment’s long term stability. What is your opinion about this?

Heinberg: Climate change is contentious among politicians and the general public, but not among scientists. Several years ago I decided to look into the writings of climate-change skeptics to see if there were some valid points. I found that each criticism had been taken seriously and had been plausibly answered by climate scientists. But these criticisms just kept appearing again and again. Meanwhile the climate skeptics seemed to have only a tenuous grasp of the climate-change literature. 

The case for human-induced climate change is overwhelming. That’s not to say natural climate variation is playing no role whatever in some of the weird weather we’re seeing. But the great majority of observed warming, the melting of the Arctic polar ice, and the acidification of the oceans are all almost certainly due to greenhouse gas emissions. Since most of those emissions are from the burning of fossil fuels, our long-term energy policy is pivotal in determining long-term environmental stability.

Is this a big deal? Far from being “alarmists,” most climate scientists appear to have understated the risks, as incoming data are consistently exceeding worst-case forecasts. Therefore “doomsday” scenarios of self-reinforcing feedbacks leading to 6 or more degrees of warming should be taken very seriously. We are performing history’s biggest chemistry experiment. Unfortunately, it’s irreversible (over humanly significant time-scales), the laboratory is our home, and the experiment seems to be blowing up in our faces.

Cotto: Some believe that solar power is the way of the future. Do you believe that it is a viable alternative to fossil fuels?

Heinberg: First, I agree that solar and other renewables are the energy sources of the future, and that we need to develop them at maximum speed. However, that doesn’t mean they will give us the quantity and quality of energy that we would need to power the rates of economic growth we saw in the 20th century. There is exciting research going on in the solar industry and prices per kilowatt-hour are falling. However, solar always faces the problem of intermittency—the sun doesn’t always shine. That means a solar-based grid will need diverse back-up power sources, energy storage, and/or long-distance transmission corridors. These add to the total cost of the system.

Cotto: Wind turbines are frequently mentioned as a means of generating electricity. What is your opinion about them?

Heinberg: Wind is cheaper than solar but still intermittent, so the same caveats apply. We can increase the solar and wind portions of our national electricity generation portfolio considerably before we will run into problems, but once they get to about 25 percent of total power these sources will require extra infrastructure investment. We’ll also start to run out of easy places to site giant wind and solar farms.

Some people respond by asking: Why not just keep burning coal and natural gas? There’s a good reason: the environmental and economic problems with these depleting, non-renewable fuels will only worsen as time goes on.

So where does that leave us? With the need to conserve energy.

Cotto: How might conservationists lead the way in reducing America’s dependency on foreign oil?

Heinberg: Since 2008 the U.S. has reduced its reliance on foreign oil. This was partly the result of increasing domestic production, but it was also due simply to reduced consumption. Our analysis (at Post Carbon Institute) indicates that the potential for increased future U.S. domestic oil production is marginal. Therefore if the nation is serious about reducing oil imports, the primary proven route to that goal must be conservation. Frankly, I believe it’s inevitable. Oil will become less and less affordable. Available oil exports will dry up as exporters use more of their production domestically (as Saudi Arabia is doing), and as nations like China outbid us for the stuff that does come to market. 

Petroleum geologist Jeffrey Brown points out that available global net exports of oil fell from about 40 million barrels per day in 2005 to 35 mb/d in 2011, while annual Brent crude prices doubled from $55 in 2005 to $111 in 2011. Rising prices should have incentivized increased exports. The fact that they didn’t tells us Americans something urgent: get used to using less oil!

“Conservationists” can help by continuing to campaign for car-share programs, higher fuel-efficiency standards, better bicycle lanes, and more public transit. If we wait for the market to do the heavy lifting, then our response is likely to be too little and too late to avoid a real crash in our levels of mobility.

By the way, the words “conservationist” and “conservative” are obviously similar. In my view, true “conservatives” are folks who understand the need to steward natural resources instead of squandering them just because they happen to be affordable at the moment. A “liberal” attitude toward non-renewable resources would be to liquidate them as quickly as possible with the hope that nature will somehow provide us with something better when those are gone. I’m in the former camp.


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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