A negative policy verdict

June 4, 2012
There is perhaps no area of human endeavor more influenced by government policy than the production and use of energy fuel. And the verdict on that influence is negative.

There is perhaps no area of human endeavor more influenced by government policy than the production and use of energy fuel. And the verdict on that influence is negative.

Beginning with President Richard Nixon in 1974, who said, "At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need," seven succeeding US presidents have made similar policy pronouncements. All have failed, as our oil imports have grown along with global warming emissions. Government-funded renewable energy fuel sources remain trivial contributors to our energy supply.

Despite mandates and subsidies for corn-ethanol motor fuel, 40% of the US corn crop now provides just 7% of US gasoline supply. Along with federal support of soybeans for biodiesel, we have caused large increases in grain prices, more irrigation and its drawdown of aquifers, and excess fertilizer chemistry draining into river systems.

To mitigate the effects of that food-for-fuel policy, Congress enacted the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) in 2007. It provided for the production of ethanol fuel from cellulosic nonfood material such as grasses and stalks and leaves left over from corn production. EISA required 250 million gal of cellulose ethanol in 2011, rising to more than 10 billion gal in 2020. We have never made more than 5 million gal/year of cellulose ethanol in subsidized research facilities as there is no practical process for volume production of ethanol from cellulose. Undaunted, Congress recently appropriated $510 million for production plants to make military jet fuel from cellulose and algae. There are fundamental physical limits for that production.

The history of energy policy is one of easily passed public laws which ignore the laws of nature and physics. Major government support of renewable-fuel projects such as wind and solar farms has also had limited success. Wind and solar combined provided about 1% of US total energy in 2011.

One of the most important low-emission energy sources is nuclear fission as practiced in over 400 worldwide power reactors. They operate night and day, wind or calm, and emit only water vapor. They are one successful example of government policy, coming out of the World War II Manhattan Project, and the ensuing research led by Adm. Hyman Rickover which produced naval reactors, from which evolved most of our commercial nuclear power plants.

More recently, public policy has turned away from nuclear as fears of accidents and radiation dominate, especially in western nations like Germany where the Green Party is ascendant. Recently an electric power exporter, Germany has become an importer as eight nuclear plants are shuttered by government decree. Germany has spent $10 billion/year to subsidize 1.1 million solar installations on rooftops and in power plants. They produce little power in the short cloudy days of winter. Germany has become an importer of electricity fueled by nuclear energy from France and the Czech Republic and also from Poland, where electric power is produced by burning brown coal.

The attitude of German industry toward current public policy was stated recently by Jurgen Grossmann, the chief executive officer of Germany's energy utility giant RWE. He said, "The subsidization of solar energy in Germany was as useful as growing pineapples in Alaska."

A reform of energy policy must be with programs which make better use of energy. This includes obvious conservation from more-efficient lighting, insulated buildings, and European-style mass transit.

The US will also need more nuclear energy where each finger joint-sized uranium fuel pellet has the energy potential of tons of polluting coal. Scores of Westinghouse AP 1000 reactors are under construction in Asia. Nuclear plants have the capacity and availability to replace power from coal.

The development of large new natural gas reserves through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing can be regulated through uniform national standards. Tens of thousands of those hydraulically fractured wells operate safely, but the danger to freshwater supplies exists if the wells are not properly cased and managed.

EIA forecasts to 2035 tell us that fossil fuels will dominate energy supplies during that entire period. Much US need for oil imports can be safely met by the vast oil sands in Alberta, assuming properly constructed pipelines like Keystone XL are approved. The environmental issues in Alberta are best left to the governments of Alberta and Canada, whose people love their lands and waters.

Finally, subsidies for wind, solar, and range-limited electric vehicles should be gradually reduced and their fate left to the marketplace. Taxing the public to give money to the wealthy, who can afford to purchase expensive electric vehicles or decorate roofs with solar panels, is poor policy.

Public policy shines best in support of new technology and basic energy research, but its glow dims when it tries to force large-scale implementation of unproven processes.

Rolf Westgard
Professional member, Geological Society of America
St. Paul, Minn.

More Oil & Gas Journal Current Issue Articles
More Oil & Gas Journal Archives Issue Articles
View Oil and Gas Articles on PennEnergy.com