The Conundrum of Energy

Energy makes the world go round, physically, economically, and politically. Energy is a cornerstone of quality of life. Energy in many forms has been utilized by mankind, wood, buffalo chips (manure), whale oil, coal, oil, gas, and nuclear, and the renewables such as hydro power, hot springs, wind, and sun.

When mankind gained control of fire, the energy race was set in motion.

Wood, buffalo chips, and whale oil have been phased out in favor of the more energy-rich sources, coal, oil, gas, nuclear, wind, and sun. Nuclear has always been viewed fearfully, with images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh in the minds of the “greatest generation.” Wind and sun on a scalable and sellable framework are relatively new developments. Coal is the old workhorse hydrocarbon, plentiful, easy to mine, store, and transport, but a major source of pollutants as it burns, and its chemical properties limit its usability. Oil and gas, coming into prominence in the late 1800s, provided an alternative to coal and found its way into every aspect of human existence as energy and petrochemicals. Oil and gas are the commodities that drive the global economy, determine which countries are superpowers, and define the quality of life for a larger part of the global community.

Frighteningly, today we know the combustion of coal, oil, and gas could spell doom for the planet Earth which gives us life. This is not a new discovery. The potential impact of greenhouse gases has been recognized for decades, but there was no need to worry, fortunes were being made, and we, the commoners, were living large. Today, however, we’ve reached a tipping point; greenhouse gases and climate change are a threat to the future and, as such, a part of daily discussions. Reports of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are important reading. The information and predictions presented in each new report cause tidal waves of concern and action to crash through commodity markets. Lobbyists are sent scurrying to counter the reports. News media feed on the headlines building controversy. And we, the people, hang on tightly to the quality of life we have achieved.

As CEO/President of a conservation organization, I was asked how we could, in clear conscience, interact and work with the producers of oil and gas. I challenged the audience to name one item in the venue hall that did not have oil/gas energy or petrochemicals in its makeup, manufacture, or distribution. Trick question, there is nothing in our daily lives that does not rely on hydrocarbons in one form or another. What are you willing to give up? Response, “nothing.” Therein is the conundrum of hydrocarbons as energy sources. What are we willing to give up? Are we willing to modify our lifestyles to a meaningful extent? Can we get control of our addiction to hydrocarbons, that energy-rich, monetarily valuable abundant resource? Or, as Nero, will we fiddle as Rome burns?

Hydrocarbons are publicly traded commodities on which unimaginable fortunes have been built and sustained. The energy industry pays very well compared to other industries; in fact, in the US, the energy industry strongly influences pay scales for all businesses and industries. Offshore lease royalties are the second largest source of income for the US Government. State governments, e.g., Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida, California, and Alaska, rely heavily on oil/gas royalty revenues. State legislatures aggressively work to protect and sustain this source of income. Many undeveloped lands have been turned into thriving communities with the discovery of oil in the vicinity.

On a global stage, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Venezuela would hardly be recognizable without their oil reserves, a critical contributor to their Gross Domestic Product. They would be countries with little influence on global affairs.

Technically, the solution to climate change is simple, stop combusting hydrocarbons, just stop. The energy industries exist because there is a market for its products. No market equals no production of a product. But this is not going to happen. Too much money and power change hands based on these commodities. Elected officials are courted and funded; lobbyists work overtime selling the indispensability of oil; policy is being set in stone to protect hydrocarbon-based industries; competing renewable energy industries, wind and solar, are being stalled to protect hydrocarbon production; incentives for exploration and production for more hydrocarbons are being doled out. For the foreseeable future, hydrocarbons will remain a cornerstone of our daily lives, which would be acceptable if managed to the benefit of all, including planet Earth.

So, what can we do to protect Earth? There are many things we can do, including:

  1. Electrification of the personal auto and commercial transport industries, land and marine.
  2. Heavily incentivize the development of alternative renewable energies. The super majors, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, etc., report billions of dollars of net profit each quarter; via policy, require 25% of this to be invested in developing renewable energy sources and technology to capture significant amounts of carbon already released into the atmosphere and oceans.
  3. Get control of industry money flowing into elected legislatures.
  4. Get the industries out of the election process.
  5. Reduce incentives allotted to hydrocarbon industries.
  6. Develop technical training programs to move coal/oil/gas workers into renewable energy jobs.
  7. As Individuals, be more thoughtful in our daily behaviors and consumptions. Show a little self-discipline. Demand items 1 through 6 become a reality.

Yes, we can protect planet Earth, but only if we are willing to challenge the status quo and look for more sustainable pathways forward. We, the people, must demand and embrace change in the energy ecology of society. Yes, change is scary and hard. Why fix what is not broke? But it is broken; the science and engineering on this are clear! Sticking our collective heads in the sand is not a livable option.

The latest IPCC report was released to the public this week (March 20, 2023) with dire predictions. Knee-jerk responses have ranged from the far left to the far right. The US government is stalled on ideology. Spin masters are hard at work. The extreme right says the idea of human-induced climate change is bogus—not happening. The extreme left is preparing for doomsday. Through political gamesmanship and stalemate, nothing significant is getting done. Perhaps in today’s political climate, expecting meaningful action from legislative bodies is an exercise in futility. Sorry people of the future, we may be handing you a lost hand as those with power and money see no need for change.

Should we choose not to pursue the essential changes, our grandchildren are going to live on a very different planet Earth, perhaps one on which only cockroaches and rats can find a true and sustainable quality of life. We, the people of today, will decide this.

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