Posted on June 20, 2010
The tragic Gulf oil spill has produced overreaction ("end offshore drilling"), demagoguery ("Obama's Katrina") and bad policy recommendations ("We must generate 20% of our electricity from windmills"). None of this helps clean up and move forward. If we want both clean energy and a high standard of living, here are 10 steps for thoughtful grown-ups:
1) Figure out what went wrong and make it unlikely to happen again. We don't stop flying after a terrible airplane crash, and we won't stop drilling offshore after this terrible spill. Thirty percent of U.S. oil production (and 25% of natural gas) comes from thousands of active wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Without it, gasoline prices would skyrocket and we would depend more on tankers from the Middle East with worse safety records than American offshore drillers.
2) Learn a safety lesson from the U.S. nuclear industry: accountability. For 60 years, reactors on U.S. Navy ships have operated without killing one sailor. Why? The career of the ship's commander can be ended by a mistake. The number of deaths from nuclear accidents at U.S. commercial reactors is also zero.
3) Determine what the president's cleanup plan was and where the people and the equipment were to implement it. In 1990, after the Exxon Valdez spill, a new law required that the president "ensure" the cleanup of a spill and have the people and equipment to do it. President Obama effectively delegated this job to the spiller. Is that a president's only real option today? If so, what should future presidents have on hand for backup if the spiller can't perform?
4) Put back on the table more onshore resources for oil and natural gas. Drilling in a few thousand acres along the edge of the 19-million acre Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and at other onshore locations would produce vast oil supplies. A spill on land could be contained much more easily than one located a mile deep in water.
5) Electrify half our cars and trucks. This is ambitious, but it is the best way to reduce U.S. oil consumption, cutting it by one-third to about 13 million barrels a day. A Brookings Institution study says we could electrify half our cars and trucks without building one new power plant if we plug in our cars at night.
6) Invest in energy research and development. A cost-competitive, 500-mile-range battery would virtually guarantee electrification of half our cars and trucks. Reduce the cost of solar power by a factor of four. Find a way for utilities to make money from the CO2 produced by their coal plants.
7) Stop pretending wind power has anything to do with reducing America's dependence on oil. Windmills generate electricity—not transportation fuel. Wind has become the energy pet rock of the 21st century and a taxpayer rip-off. According to the Energy Information Administration, wind produces only 1.3% of U.S. electricity but receives federal taxpayer subsidies 25 times as much per megawatt hour as subsidies for all other forms of electricity production combined. Wind can be an energy supplement, but it has nothing to do with ending our dependence on oil.
8) If we need more green electricity, build nuclear plants. The 100 commercial nuclear plants we already have produce 70% of our pollution-free, carbon-free electricity. Yet the U.S. has just broken ground on our first new reactor in 30 years, while China starts one every three months and France is 80% nuclear. We wouldn't mothball our nuclear Navy if we were going to war. We shouldn't mothball our nuclear plants if we want low-cost, reliable green energy.
9) Focus on conservation. In the region where I live, the Tennessee Valley Authority could close four of its dirtiest coal plants if we reduced our per capita use of electricity to the national average.
10) Make sure liability limits are appropriate for spill damage. The Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, funded by a per-barrel fee on industry, should be adjusted to pay for cleanup and to compensate those hurt by spills. An industry insurance program like that of the nuclear industry is also an attractive model to consider.
These 10 steps forward could help America grow stronger after this tragic event.