Why Foreign Oil Dependence and Wind Energy Don’t Belong in the Same Conversation

I heard the most amazing and simple NPR report this weekend that blew my mind.  I guess I just didn’t understand the debate surrounding clean energy and our foreign oil dependence, two things that aren’t really related.

The interview, titled “If Oil Were Like Salt, Could U.S. Kick the Habit?”, was on Weekend Morning Edition.  Steve Simon interviewed Jim Woolsey, “the chairman of Woolsey Partners and a former director of Central Intelligence. He specializes in a range of alternative energy and security issues.”

Here are my favorite quotes, but I suggest you listen to the whole thing:

SIMON: So what are some of the obstructions, technological, economic and political?

Mr. WOOLSEY: Well, in part we haven’t been working frequently on the right problem. There are two energy systems essentially in the U.S. One is transportation – that’s at 70 percent oil – and the other is the electricity grid – and that’s over half fueled by coal and then natural gas, nuclear, hydro and others. They don’t have very much to do with one another now.

Back in the ’70s it was different. Oil fired power plants, provided about 20 percent of the country’s electricity. So, if you were building a nuclear power plant or a wind farm in the ’70s, you could well be replacing oil directly. Today, you’re not.

SIMON: So when people talk about generating alternative sources of energy – and it often is things like wind or solar – that’s not necessarily addressing the problem of foreign oil dependence.

Mr. WOOLSEY: It’s not really addressing the problem of foreign oil dependence. No, that that doesn’t have much to do with it and won’t for many years.

Wow.  I just did not know that.  Pure ignorance.

There’s a lot more after the jump if you are interested, including the reason that OPEC’s power won’t be curtailed if we drill in America, why petroleum in our atmosphere is really bad for our health, and the explanation of the title of the interview.

Mr. WOOLSEY: In a way, there’s been too much emphasis on the foreign side of this. Yes, we import well over half our oil now and that’s a bad thing and we borrow a billion dollars a day essentially to import oil. But producing the oil domestically helps solve the balance of payments problem, but that’s about all it does. It will not interfere with OPEC’s domination of oil.

Something close to 80 percent of the world’s proven reserves of oil are in OPEC states. And they are the low-cost producers and they have the big reserves. So they’re going to be effectively running the international oil trade and running the cartel that runs it even if we drill more domestically. And so they’re going to run the system.

We have to effectively destroy oil as a strategic commodity. Not destroy oil, but destroy its strategic role, its dominance of transportation.

Again, this quote just floored me.  We can’t actually affect OPEC because they have access to the largest amount of a finite resource that is in high demand around the world.  We can lessen the balance of payments, stop borrowing as much money to deal with oil, but we can’t actually take away power and money from OPEC.  I just think this is an incredibly important idea that we have to talk more about in the energy debates, especially the off-shore debates, especially in the wake of the tragedy of the BP oil spill (oh, and for the record, I think accidents do happen and I am okay with risk.  But not being able to even begin to address the issue once the accident happened – that’s why off-shore drilling and BP are a problem.  I’m so tired of the “Accidents Happen” approach to this spill.)

After explaining that we need to move towards electrification and improving the efficiency of internal combustion engines, Woolsey says,

You can also encourage the use of biofuels generally. Require the automobile manufacturers much more rapidly than we’re now requiring them to move to what’s called an open-standard, flexible fuel vehicles. It just requires them to change the kind of plastic in the fuel line of the car and a bit of software -40, 50 dollars a vehicle – in the manufacturing process.

And that, I think, would an extremely positive step. One reason it would be positive is that we’ve got a serious health risk problem from using petroleum products. The fine particulates that are carried into the atmosphere by what’s called aromatics – benzene, toluene, xylene – which is what the oil companies now use to increase octane, are highly carcinogenic.

It really looks as if tens of thousands of deaths from malignancy a year and hundreds of millions of dollars in added health care costs are caused by these fine particulates, which the oil companies have a special waiver on, essentially. If you run a chemical plant, you can’t put benzene, toluene, xylene into the atmosphere, but they’re permitted to do it because it’s from a mobile source like gasoline in a car.

Finally, why the interview compares Salt to Oil:

WOOLSEY: Same thing happened to salt in the very early 20th century. Salt was a strategic commodity for thousands of years. It was the only way to preserve meat, countries went to war over salt mines. At the beginning of the 20th century, the coming of the electric grids, meant that all of a sudden refrigeration and freezing was available affordably and salt’s dominance just fell apart within a relatively few years. That’s what we need to do to oil. We need to make it as boring as salt is today.


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