Green Oil?

June 17, 2010

National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg published a column yesterday comparing the environmental effects of petroleum to some other “green” energy sources, especially contrasting the mounting Deepwater Horizon damage in the Gulf of Mexico to the permanent “dead zone” in the same Gulf caused by agricultural runoff.

Goldberg very well could have mentioned bird deaths, as well.  Oil soaked pelicans are now staples of televised coverage of the spill, and the numbers of birds that will die as a result of this disaster will probably number in the hundreds of thousands, at least (an estimated 500K perished as a result of the Exxon Valdez spill).  Wind energy advocates downplay the number of birds killed by wind turbines (and the annual number is nowhere near as large as what will be lost in this event), but remember that we will be ramping up wind capacity by an order of magnitude, so the number of bird deaths will also increase.  And, the big killer associated with wind – as it will be with solar and as it already is with other means of generating power – is transmission lines.  Estimates are that as many as 174 million birds per year are killed by US transmission lines – some by collision while flying, some by touching their wings to two lines at the same time.

The point is that we live in an energy intensive society, and there is no way (short of the type of self-induced human extinction envisioned by radicals like Peter Singer) to avoid this kind of impact on our environment.  Whatever the means of generating power, modern society will always be a target rich environment for those looking for Green Issues on which to hoist their flag.

But, oil and fossil fuels can be greener than they are.  There are other non-conventional sources beyond deepwater offshore pockets that will be cleaner (if not easier and cheaper, at least initially), such as tar sands or shale oil.   If we couple exploitation of these resources with tightened environmental regulations, we can have both a cleaner environment and energy independence.

As a nation, the last thing we want is independence from oil and coal.  We want energy security, which is not the same thing.  The ascent of the US as a world power was made on the vast quantities of oil and coal with which our nation is blessed, and those same resources are the key to maintaining – and even extending – that position in the future.  “The World is Awash in Oil” is a recurring theme on this blog; I even posted on this topic yesterday, at roughly the same time Goldberg published his discourse.   To beat the drum yet again:  While we may be ending the end of the First Age of Oil (“cheap oil” that is easy to find and pump), we are approaching a Second Age of Oil – the Shale Age – in which oil will be more expensive, but it will also (with new technologies) burn more cleanly.  And, once again, the US with its vast reserves will dominate this age as well.  It won’t be tomorrow or next year, but when shale oil extraction matches the current shale gas extraction, the US will find its trade deficit suddenly turned upside down – not only will the hundreds of billions of dollars currently sent offshore for imported oil be retained, but additional hundreds of billions will be earned through the exportation of our own excess capacity.  Over the course of a couple of decades, trillions of dollars of federal revenues from leases and taxes will reduce and possibly eliminate the government debt.

The environmental costs must be addressed through technology and some sort of carbon accounting scheme, but the hard core anti-oil crowd has to be fought on this issue.  Fossil fuels are the path to a bright future and a new American century.

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