Everything seems like a fight these days; cooperation is lost in divisive issues of our time. Most conflicts have to do with scarcity, but that isn’t always the case. And when it comes to energy, is scarcity really the issue?
Economists are fond of saying we will never run out of oil. You can point to all the indicators of increased consumption and declining production you like, they just smile and shake their heads. Doesn’t matter, they say, because when oil gets scarce, the price will go up until no one can afford it. When that happens, alternative energy becomes cost effective and displaces fossil fuel in world markets. As a result, we will never run out of oil.
Huh. Makes sense.
Petroluem and natural gas producers already know this. When gas crested over $4 a gallon in 2008, wind and solar energy started looking like a comparative bargain. As a result Fossil Fuel companies increased production, flooding the market to keep prices low and stave off inevitable replacement as long as possible. But light, sweet crude isn’t nearly as plentiful as it once was, so this means increasing demand for Venezuelan Heavy Crude and Alberta Tar Sand Bitumen. These sources come with higher contaminants (Sulfur, in particular) and that’s really bad when it comes to air quality and Climate Change.
Most of us have taken sides on this issue long ago, handing our beliefs down to our kids. Tough to break out of at this point, because these hard set ideas are so ingrained, we’ve divided ourselves into clans. We fight each other tooth and nail to accomplish…what?
Asking a major oil company to commit suicide isn’t going to get us far. Neither is expecting all the people who draw their living from fossil fuel to just roll over and go broke. These companies are legally obligated to maximize shareholder value. It’s in their corporate charters. They must do business in the most profitable manner possible. Anyone who seriously believes an executive would explain to their shareholders that earnings are down because “it was the moral thing to do” is living in a fantasy. Corporations exist to generate profit, and they will always continue to do so. While many of us hate the fact that Big Oil is profiting in an industry that is poisoning our landscape, let’s reserve our judgment just a moment to see a bigger picture.
These huge, multi-national corporations thrive in spite of their reputations because they hire intelligent, creative, motivated individuals. We need to stop dismissing that wealth of talent just because we don’t like the way it’s being applied.
We also cannot ignore the alarms our own scientists are setting off. We are changing our climate for the worse. Pulling out of the Paris Agreements is self-defeating. And as emerging economies demand more energy, our current path through fossil fuels is a literal dead end.
So do we start up a whole new set of renewable energy companies and subsidize them so they can kill off Big Oil?
We already have the brightest, strongest energy companies in the world who understand world markets. We don’t need a crop of weak startups that lack the experience, stability, and influence to endure. We need to stop thinking of fossil fuel companies in terms of what they currently specialize in, be it coal, petroleum, bitumen, natural gas, or any other form of carbon-based energy and rebrand them plainly as energy companies.
Then, our Federal Government needs to decide it is serious about preserving our world for our children and for all things that live and breathe.
Offer executives at these firms the chance to lead companies we can be proud of rather than despise. Show them how they can lead us into a clean, carbon neutral future. Explain how they will help America attain energy independence, and in the process, prevent our serving men and women from being put into harm’s way over access to energy. Entice these business people into becoming beacons of innovation that inspire our new generations and draw the best/brightest of every graduating class. How do we get there? By making these energy companies immensely profitable while doing so.
Fossil Fuel corporations would likely already be doing this if there weren’t so many obstacles. Many of them have already seen the predictions of peak oil. They understand the difficulty in accessing new reserves, etc. They see the instability of shaky governments that could be there one day and topple the next. They already know the future of petroleum is bleak. So we need to hear them out. Let them list the challenges. And then allow the Department of Energy to create needed incentives, subsidies, and grants that allow these companies to evolve while remaining in the black, financially.
Yes, we absolutely can get to carbon neutrality. There’s a fusion reactor in space that provides all the power we could ever need. There’s a moon that lugs the tides around. There’s wind, and geothermal. We are energy abundant. But we will never get to carbon neutrality if we treat our existing energy companies as demons to be slain. They will fight for life with the best lobbyists DC can offer. They will fight with doubt, confusion, conflicting reports, all the methods that have been so effective in getting their way in spite of what the public demands. (GMO Labeling, anyone? Net Neutrality?)
We must embrace these companies as partners, not fight them. Show them a better path and make it profitable.
This same method can work for any corporation producing a poisonous product. Assist these firms in divesting from their poison products (looking at you, Monsanto and Big Tobacco), and assist their transitions to something that benefits mankind. Could be energy storage (goodness knows our battery tech needs help). Could be refinement of ores from seawater so we don’t need to strip or pit mine our mountain ranges. Could be energy transport that doesn’t require a pipeline. Could be quantum computing, recycling, de-orbiting space junk, or better agricultural techniques that don’t kill our pollinators. There are hundreds of nascent technologies that need the investment and expertise of well-established firms.
Consider this: what vital technologies have been delayed because we chose energy that had to be secured through bullets and blood? Imagine how many roads, schools, and bridges could have been built with the money lost in the Iraq War. Imagine how much original research could have been funded. The opportunity cost of Fossil Fuel is much higher than most people can fathom (or believe).
We all want clean air, soil, and water. No one wants to look at a smoke stack. No one wants their child to suffer from mercury, lead, or arsenic poisoning. We don’t have to settle for a bleak status quo.
Our current administration would defund key programs at the Department of Energy, and that betrays a total lack of imagination. Much more can be accomplished when our Federal Government serves business by encouraging new innovations rather than taking campaign contributions to look the other way and letting the buyer beware (caveat emptor). Subsidizing an industry has worked in the past. It can work again.
Demand better. Let the profit motive work in our favor. Incentivize the playing field for a more stable world. And bring our existing companies (with all the people who work for them) into a cleaner future.