Energy Security, Patriotism, and Roosevelt 101
Five related post-9/11 essays by Jim DiPeso
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: These essays were originally published online by Grist.
MONDAY, OCTOBER 15, 2001
MYRTLE BEACH, SOUTH CAROLINA
It can be tough being the last speaker at a daylong conference. You have to approach your task with the attitude of the Jamaican bobsled team: since expectations are low, just relax and go with the flow. I was given the final slot at the annual conference of Republicans for Environmental Protection; it was a gorgeous fall afternoon, and the Carolina sun was dancing on a glassy blue Atlantic just outside the meeting room windows. My job was to keep the audience indoors and get them thinking about energy policy in the post-Sept. 11 environment.
Sound difficult? Actually, it wasn’t. The session was a success — not because of any scintillating oratory from me, but because REP is filled with bright, creative people who take unexplored byways in thinking about public policy issues. By its nature, REP attracts people who march to their own drummers. An organization for Republicans who care about environmental protection can be a difficult sell, for both party loyalists who dislike criticism of Republican leaders and for environmentalists who suspect greenscamming. Martha Marks, REP’s national president, jokes that she’s head of the world’s funniest oxymoron.
REP occupies a unique niche: advocating for conservation methods that fit with traditional Republican ideals of stewardship, heritage, efficiency, individual responsibility, and national security. REP has the credibility to deliver a message about energy policy that other conservation organizations may not have. We believe that using energy more efficiently, reducing petroleum dependence, and developing alternative energy sources are essential for protecting America’s national security. My job at the conference was to explain why.
The United States imports 56 percent of the oil we use. One out of every eight barrels of oil used in this country comes from the Persian Gulf. Dependence on Middle Eastern oil is a dangerous habit that forces the U.S. to spend $30 billion-$60 billion per year to protect vulnerable energy supply lines, puts U.S. troops in harm’s way defending distant oil fields, and forces the U.S. into alliances with unsavory and unstable regimes. Some of the dollars spent for Middle Eastern oil find their way into terrorists’ coffers.
Drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would not significantly reduce oil imports and is unwise from a security standpoint anyway. Arctic refuge production would increase and prolong our dependence on an aging, remote pipeline that is difficult to defend. Earlier this month, an intoxicated shooter put a hole in the pipeline and shut down North Slope production for several days. Imagine what sophisticated terrorists could do. The only lasting energy security solution is a phased, orderly transition to new fuels — using energy more efficiently to begin with, and developing clean, domestic energy resources that are less vulnerable to disruption and attack, including fuel cells, solar, wind, and biomass.
My message to the conference seemed to go over well. There were a lot of good, penetrating questions about the energy choices facing America, both collectively and individually. (And I didn’t have to bring up the touchy issue of individual responsibility and driving SUVs, thanks to someone else who asked how many people in the room drove the big gas-guzzlers. More than a few hands went up. But not mine; I love my Honda Civic.)
In the wake of Sept. 11, the energy security angle is especially imperative and timely. Talking about energy policy from a security perspective fits well with the advice REP heard earlier in the day from our keynote speaker, Lamar Marshall, president of Wild Alabama. Marshall urged us to frame environmental issues in language that will resonate with the current concerns of your audience. That’s good advice for any conservation issue. In the coming months, you’ll be hearing more from REP about energy security. Our message will be that energy efficiency is patriotic. After all, the greatest Republican conservationist of them all, Theodore Roosevelt, said in 1910: “Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 16 2001
During my callow youth, my dad predicted I would be a math major in college. I’ve never understood why he thought so, but his career as a sixth-grade math teacher probably had something to do with it. I wasn’t bad at math, but I wasn’t all that good either. A near-F experience with high school algebra convinced me to stick with writing, so I studied for what has turned out to be a rewarding career in journalism and occasional fulminating.
Those of us who blew off serious math classes are hesitant to pick up books containing graphs and formulas that stir up repressed memories of despotic geometry teachers. But don’t let math anxiety stop you from reading Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. If you worry about our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, you need to read this book. If you’re looking for good arguments for speeding up development of alternative energy sources, you need to read this book. If you drive an SUV, you really need to read this book.
Hubbert’s Peak was written by Kenneth Deffeyes, a geologist who spent his career in Shell’s Houston research laboratory and on the Princeton University faculty. My eye was drawn to Deffeyes’ book because I had read about Hubbert’s Peak in an article published three years ago in Scientific American. M. King Hubbert was a Shell geophysicist who predicted in 1956 that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. Hubbert had the audacity to publicize his prediction in front of a meeting of stupefied oilmen. Many refused to accept his prediction, but he turned out to be right on the money.
Deffeyes’ book applies Hubbert’s technique to estimate when world oil production will peak and start to fall. Deffeyes concludes that world oil production will peak sometime in the next decade. Afterwards, production will begin an inexorable decline that will force up prices and rock the global economic system. Now is the time, Deffeyes writes, to plan for the post-petroleum era by boosting energy efficiency and lining up alternative energy sources. The geology and statistics are a little thick for liberal-arts types, but the facts and figures give the book a sobering credibility that makes it a must-read. The author sprinkles enough witticisms and helpful analogies throughout the pages to take the edge off the heavy science.
Since Republicans for Environmental Protection is focusing on energy security these days, I’ve been spending time the past few weeks poring over Hubbert’s Peak and talking up the book in meetings and notes to journalists. Off and on throughout my workday, I pick up the book and review key paragraphs. I even took the book to bed last night to fret over Gaussian bell-shaped production curves while my wife relaxed with Sidney Poitier’s autobiography.
So, do I think that Deffeyes is on to something really important? Considering the stakes, what are we to make of all this? As a lay person, I tell people that Hubbert’s Peak may not be the last word on world oil resources, but there is considerable risk in blithely ignoring the author’s conclusions. Deffeyes doesn’t mince words: “There is nothing plausible that could postpone the [production] peak until 2009. Get used to it.” As my dad might have said to his sixth grade students, “Do the math.”
WEDNESDAY, OTOBER 17 2001
Four hours. That’s how long it took to get through all my email Tuesday after returning from REP’s annual meeting in South Carolina. There was the usual run of gimmicky advertising come-ons to delete. But there was also important news and information to catch up on. Senate maneuvering over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Conservation provisions in the new farm bill. And a numbingly esoteric conflict over the Bonneville Power Administration’s payment of its power costs with fish credits. (No, the Northwest’s electricity market has not degenerated into medieval barter, and yes, it’s an obscure technical issue that only lifelong energy geeks could get really excited about.)
Love it or hate it, email is indispensable to REP. As a small citizens organization with offices in three time zones and members in six, we could not function without the Internet. Potential new members contact REP through our web site. Fans email us their compliments. Crackpots amuse us with their electronic hissy fits. Much of my communication with reporters and editors is conducted by email. Last summer, REP relied heavily on email to encourage our members to write the Forest Service to support protection for roadless areas. Outside of one or two face-to-face meetings per year, our board of directors communicates almost entirely in cyberspace because of its efficiency and very low cost. The first and only time our board met by conference call was five years ago. The $800 bill for a two-hour call could have paid for about 4 months of Internet access for all nine directors. Sometimes I find myself staring at the skinny wire snaking its way through our house from my cluttered office to the utility pole outside, marveling that so much information can be sent so far with so little effort.
And so little energy, I might add. Yeah, here it comes: the energy efficiency pitch. On a micro level, electronic communications is an energy saver. Take paper, for example. Think of paper as congealed electricity. It takes 17 kilowatt-hours of energy to manufacture two reams of office paper totaling 1,000 sheets. That’s about the same as leaving a 100-watt light bulb lit for a little over a week. More energy — gasoline, diesel, and perhaps jet fuel — is consumed schlepping the two reams from mill to store to customer. On a macro level, the picture is more complex, but there is reason to believe that electronic information technology is a net energy saver.
There have been many media stories about Internet server farms voraciously gobbling vast quantities of electricity. A 1999 study by a clean energy think tank, the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, found that such claims probably were exaggerated. The same study found that the Internet is causing structural economic changes that are likely to reduce overall energy “intensity” — the amount of energy consumed per dollar of gross domestic product — in the years ahead. Less energy intensity means less need for all those power plants Vice President Cheney wants to build. When you free up energy supplies through efficiency, it’s like building an invisible power plant. You won’t see the invisible power plant discharging offal into the atmosphere, nor will you see a fuel supply line stretching back to drilling rigs in what used to be wilderness. Think about the security benefit, too. A power plant that can’t be seen is a power plant that can’t be bombed.
The next time you return to your home or office from an extended trip, you’ll face a pile of email to trawl through. Tedious, yes, but think of each message as a tiny brick building America’s invisible power plant.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 18 2001
REP has an especially bright member named Barbara who grew up in the Oregon woods, where her father worked as a forest ranger. On Wednesday, Barbara sent out an email to tell us REP young’uns that foresters and other natural resource managers were exempt from the World War II military draft because of their essential role in homeland security. Barbara’s email got me thinking about the links between conservation and security that Theodore Roosevelt saw and acted upon a century ago.
Today’s political leaders could use a refresher course in Roosevelt’s insight — let’s call it Roosevelt 101 — as they ponder opening our most spectacular public lands to industrial extraction. We’ll start with the story of Pelican Island, a spot of muddy land north of Vero Beach, Fla. In the early 20th century, there was a peculiar fashion of adorning women’s hats with bird feathers. The fad was so widespread that bird populations were being wiped out to stock the feather merchants’ shops. Pelican Island was one of the places hit hard by the feather collectors. The island was home to its namesake bird, as well as egrets, ibises, and other species.
In 1903, the birds’ plight was brought to the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, the most skilled birder ever to sit in the Oval Office. TR asked his aides whether any law prevented him from designating Pelican Island a federal bird sanctuary. Nope, the aides replied. “Very well, then, I so declare it,” Roosevelt stated, thus speaking into existence America’s first national wildlife refuge. Today, there are more than 500 such preserves, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska.
That same year, Roosevelt heard about Japanese squatters poaching seabirds on Midway Island. He sent in a squad of Marines to secure the island and put a stop to the bird slaughter. If there had been talk radio in TR’s day, you can imagine the apoplectic bloviation that would have clogged the airwaves in reaction to a chief executive wasting the time of America’s finest young men on a bunch of stupid birds. Roosevelt’s enemies really came unglued at his actions to protect public lands for future generations — what today’s anti-environmentalists would have called “locking up” land. All told, Roosevelt protected 230 million acres, equal to the combined land area of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. More than 75 percent of the lands included in our national forests were protected by Theodore Roosevelt.
So what does this conservation history lesson have to do with security? Roosevelt had a lifelong personal interest in wildlife and wild lands. As a child, he opened a natural history museum in his bedroom. More importantly, however, TR was a dedicated, thoughtful patriot who wanted America to be safe, strong, and prosperous. He was appalled at the egregious waste of natural resources and feared for America if the special interests of his time were allowed to squander the nation’s natural endowment. Natural resources, he told a 1908 conservation conference, are “the final basis of national power and perpetuity.”
And not just for today’s Americans. In conserving natural resources, Roosevelt was also thinking about the well-being of future Americans. In 1916, he asserted that the current generation was duty-bound to “restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations.” Conservation gives a voice to future Americans by leaving them an inheritance and giving them choices. As Abraham Lincoln extended democracy’s mandate over black Americans through emancipation, Theodore Roosevelt extended democracy’s mandate over future Americans through conservation.
Roosevelt’s insight is as timely now as it was a century ago — or perhaps even more so, with the unprecedented pressure that inefficient consumption and population growth are placing on the world’s natural resources. Our endowment includes the ecological nutrient and energy cycles that underpin our existence and which are mediated by countless species going about their daily business in the world’s wild places. Roosevelt knew that wildlife possess a special type of knowledge and often spoke of protecting creatures in those terms: “When I hear of the destruction of a species, I feel just as if the works of some great writer had perished.”
Our security lies in maintaining the ecological integrity of our public lands and protecting the wildlife that silently run the world’s ecosystems. The next time you go camping or fishing in a national forest, stop a moment and take a look at the giant trees above and the tiny critters in the soil beneath. What you’re seeing is the natural heritage that the 26th president defended for you. Now it’s our turn to defend the heritage for our fellow citizens of the 22nd century.
We have completed our refresher course in Roosevelt 101. Class dismissed.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 19 2001
It’s another overcast autumn morning. I’m looking out my window at the leaves falling off my neighbor’s pear tree. Nature is hunkering down for the winter here at the 47th parallel. Soon, the leaves will break down and send their elements on another ride through the ecological cycles that keep life in tune.
Mixed up in the detritus are tiny atoms of hydrogen. Before there was oxygen, before there was carbon, before there was nitrogen, iron, phosphorus, calcium, or anything else in the universe, there was hydrogen. Hydrogen is made up of one proton and one electron — creation reduced to first principles. Hydrogen holds the key to a clean, secure, and perpetual energy source for human civilization.
Hold on a minute, wise guy, I hear the skeptics say. Ever heard of the Hindenburg? It was a blimp filled with hydrogen that went ka-boom back in 1937. No way, say critics, will drivers consider buying little Hindenburgs.
Okay, let’s get this issue out of the way right now. Everywhere I go, every time I mention hydrogen, someone brings up the #@%& Hindenburg. The conventional explanation for the accident is that the hydrogen the airship used as a lifting gas escaped from the bag and caught fire. In 1997, however, a retired NASA scientist, skeptical of the official explanation, investigated the accident for himself. What he found was startling. It turns out that the Hindenburg’s skin was coated with a stiffening agent chemically similar to the solid fuel used today for space shuttle boosters. If you coat a blimp with rocket fuel and it encounters static electricity, what do you think is going to happen?
Yes, hydrogen is flammable, but so is gasoline. When hydrogen leaks, it dissipates rapidly, unlike gasoline, in which explosive vapors tend to pool. Film footage showed the Hindenburg’s hydrogen burning straight up, away from the airship’s passenger compartment. There is no reason to believe we can’t figure out how to build cars that handle hydrogen safely. Industrial hydrogen users routinely manage large quantities of it without problems. A 1997 Ford Motor Company study concluded that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could potentially be even safer than gasoline vehicles, if engineered properly.
Fuel cells, rather than direct combustion, is the likeliest use of hydrogen for transportation and other applications. Automakers worldwide are putting big money into fuel cell R&D. Bill Ford, chairman of the company that bears his family’s name, believes fuel cells will supplant internal combustion engines and will be the dominant automotive propulsion technology in 25 years. Dozens of companies are working to commercialize fuel cells for a wide range of uses, from cell phones to power plants.
Fuel cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen. The only byproduct is warm water. No carbon dioxide to change the climate. No nitrogen oxides or hydrocarbons to create urban smog. No cancer-causing benzene. The trick, however, is finding an economical source of hydrogen to mix with oxygen. Automakers won’t mass-produce fuel cell vehicles unless there is a fuel infrastructure in place — which is why they’re experimenting with a transition strategy of onboard “reformers” that extract hydrogen from conventional fuels such as gasoline or methanol.
There is reason to believe, however, that building a hydrogen infrastructure need not be cost-prohibitive. University of Michigan researchers, for example, recommend installing reformers at filling stations, which could extract hydrogen from piped-in natural gas. The Michigan study estimated that building 10,000 such filling stations would cost between $3 billion and $15 billion.
To get the full environmental benefits of hydrogen will mean finding cleaner ways to produce it. The beauty of hydrogen is that the gas can be produced here at home, secure from foreign coups and cartels. Hydrogen can be produced by “electrolyzing” water. Solar cells or wind farms could supply the necessary electricity. Biomass is another potential hydrogen feedstock, which could create a new market for farmers.
If all this sounds far-off futuristic, it shouldn’t. Iceland, a small Nordic country that rarely draws our notice, is showing the way. Iceland’s government has announced a 30-year program to replace all fossil fuels with hydrogen. Iceland has natural advantages — abundant geothermal and hydro resources that can supply electricity for extracting hydrogen from water. Royal Dutch/Shell, which has established a hydrogen subsidiary, DaimlerChrysler, and Norsk Hydro, a Norwegian energy firm, are investing in the effort, hoping Iceland can draw the map that will lead to a worldwide hydrogen economy. If Iceland succeeds, the implications would be momentous.
In the 19th century, wood and muscle power gave way to fossil fuels. But the visionary writer Jules Verne looked further ahead. In his book The Mysterious Island, a character foresaw a world where fossil fuels had given way to hydrogen. It wasn’t the first time Verne was on to something big.
More on the topic of ENERGY:
Conservatives should conserve, shouldn’t they? (Plenary speech by Martha Marks at the annual convention of the National Association of Environmental Professionals, held in Arlington, Virginia on June 25-27, 2001)
America, it’s time for a new Manhattan Project! (A Jim DiPeso article originally published in the fall 2001 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter)