This month’s “Truth in Strange Places” award goes to Tennessee’s own Lamar Alexander, for saying, in a speech on the Senate floor:
“We use 25 percent of all the energy in the world to produce about 25 percent of all the money in the world—five percent of the people in the world. In order to keep our high standard of living we need to remember we’re not a desert island. Solar, wind and biomass are an important supplement, but America’s 21st Century reliable, low-cost energy needs are not going to be met by electricity produced by a windmill, a controlled bonfire and a few solar panels.”
What makes the placement of this truth strange is the overall context, and the presumptions that surround it. Senator Alexander apparently thinks that America can keep relying on petroleum and coal, build more nuclear power plants, and thus maintain our current lifestyle.
Senator Alexander’s remarks contain numerous fallacies about our energy supply and its future.
First, he assumes we can keep on relying on petroleum, when the truth is that we on the brink of seeing our petroleum supply diminish rapidly. One of the rarely mentioned significances of deep water oil drilling is that we are only doing it because all the easy oil is gone. We are at the point of peak oil. Demand, especially from India and China, is increasing, while the rate of new oil discoveries has fallen dramatically and the amount of oil produced annually has plateaued. . Senator Alexander refuses to face the fact that we are running out of oil.
Second, he assumes that we can go on mining coal indefinitely. This is not the case; carbon issues aside, some students of our energy future think we may hit “peak coal” in just another fifteen years or so. Let’s face it: mountaintop removal is to coal what deep water drilling is to oil–scraping the bottom of the jar for the last scraps of its contents. Large-scale coal mining is also heavily dependent on petroleum for lubricants and transportation, and will become more expensive as the price of oil continues to increase. Sen. Alexander further assumes that the sacrifice of much of West Virginia and Kentucky, and parts of Tennessee, is an acceptable price to pay for that coal. Many of the area’s residents would disagree with him. The fact that coal companies do not have to pay out of pocket for the destruction of the Appalachian ecosystem does not make it any less expensive. It just means that somebody besides the coal companies is having to pay the cost.
Senator Alexander ignores the climate change aspect of coal and oil extraction, as well, and falsely claims that nuclear power is a low-carbon option. The increasing carbonation of our atmosphere and oceans has spun the planet’s climate out of equilibrium and in a much, much warmer direction. By cutting back our carbon emissions, we can at least soften the blow that is falling on us, but Senator Alexander recklessly disregards these realities in his demand for comfort now. Where is his respect for the rights of the unborn on this issue?
“The rights of the unborn”—yes, I find it extremely ironic that many of those who campaign against abortion on this slogan seem to have no compunction about living a high-consumption lifestyle that will leave little in the way of natural resources for those who are not yet born….but I digress…
Nuclear power, too, faces looming limits on the availability of its primary fuel, uranium, and has the further disadvantage of creating radioactive wastes that remain lethal for a quarter of a million years, at least. Not surprisingly, we have yet to come up with a technology or even a location for safe containment and storage of these poisons. A quarter of a million years ago, our ancestors were not yet homo sapiens. That’s how long we’re talking about here. And, while Senator Alexander rails against subsidies for wind power, he conveniently ignores the massive subsidies that have made nuclear power appear to be a viable option for producing electricity.When the subsidies are factored in, nuclear energy is one of the most expensive ways to produce electricity. A program that improved the efficiency of insulation, lighting, heating and cooling, and other common uses of electricity could eliminate the need for nearly 400 power plants in this country We don’t need more, thank you. The Europeans are doing quite nicely on about half of US per capita energy consumption.
And then there’s the question of how we are supposed to pay for more energy production, or even continue to pay for what we are currently using. Sure, we have been “five percent of the people with twenty-five percent of the money,” but those days are just about over. The American middle class is tapped out–in addition to everybody’s personal debts, we middle-class taxpayers are footing the bills for the bank bailout and our country’s military adventures in the Middle East, and just printing up more dollar bills will only go so far.
Can you say bankruptcy, boys and girls?
And the sad thing about all Senator Alexander’s errors of fact and perception is that they are not just one man’s opinion. They are presumably shared by the million and a half Tennesseans who elected him, as well as millions of Americans around the country, many of whom are not even Republicans. After all, Obama’s energy guy, Steven Chu, is calling for an expanded nuclear program in this country. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” eh?
The one thing that Senator Alexander did get right is that renewable energy sources cannot maintain the energy supply to which we have become accustomed. The American lifestyle–indeed, the lifestyle of any even moderately wealthy person anywhere on the planet–is possible only because we have burned the greater part of the planet’s accessible supplies of coal and oil in the last two hundred years, leaving only scraps for our descendants. There is no way we can keep living as we have been. We are going to need to orchestrate a sensible and orderly return to a simpler lifestyle, or face the chaotic consequences of ignoring that reality. It’s not what most people in America want to hear, but that’s the way it is. The party’s over, Lamar.
music: Eliza Gilkyson, “The Party’s Over”