Beyond Petroleum?

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Science  13 Aug 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5993, pp. 727
DOI: 10.1126/science.1194561

Remember some years back, when British Petroleum claimed that its initials stood for “Beyond Petroleum?” Its competitors were furious at the suggestion that it was leading the push toward renewable energy. Now that BP is responsible for an oil spill that is ruining beaches, livelihoods, and wildlife, these same competitors are telling U.S. senators that “We would not have drilled the well that way.” Believe that or not, “Beyond Petroleum” could be the right slogan for the policy changes needed to end the U.S. national addiction to oil. That outcome will require a mix of solutions involving the Congress, the American public, businesses, the Administration, and environmental organizations—all driven by passionate conviction about the need for change.

This isn't exactly new. In 1977, President Carter referred to dealing with the energy crisis by ending the country's dependence on oil as “the moral equivalent of war.” Despite an epidemic of gasoline lines in 1978 and 1979, the “moral equivalent” imperative failed, leaving the United States in the middle of another oil crisis quite different from the one that Carter faced. The contemporary challenge is not that there isn't enough oil; there is far too much of it. Oil has produced environmental devastation on Gulf shores, more of the same in Amazonian forests, emissions from transportation systems that endanger public health, and supplies managed by nation-states that threaten global security. The abuses that result from an overdependence on oil amount to a national crisis, and its resolution will depend on cooperative actions taken by government, industry, and the public.


The government needs to take action at the administrative level: through subsidies for investment in renewable energy, research grants for solar and wind applications, the green jobs needed to do that work, and policy support for vehicle electrification. Those actions require no new statutes; neither does the needed regulation of existing coal-fired power plants by the Environmental Protection Agency. But legislative hopes died when the Senate majority leader killed hopes for a climate-energy bill. Eventually, dealing with those together will be necessary to reduce carbon intensity by changing the energy mix. Businesses and environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club should work with government to resolve struggles over large-scale renewable energy projects on public lands. Large solar-thermal units or wind farms require space; so do the transmission lines needed to connect wind or solar sources with the power grid. These climate-worthy projects may affect areas that even their proponents treasure for other uses: recreation, wildlife conservation, or the protection of endangered species. Resolution will involve government agencies (the Departments of Energy and the Interior) that may have different interests in the outcome.

And because oil dependence is so tightly linked to the transportation sector, reducing oil dependence requires increasing vehicle efficiency using current technologies: lowering weight and improving engines and aerodynamics. Biofuels don't really mitigate carbon emissions and have brought new problems to the food sector. But burning biomass to produce electricity, if carbon costs are carefully considered, could encourage vehicle electrification. For electric charging, tax structures that take account of carbon emissions will be needed, and road-use taxes comparable to those now paid only by the gasoline tax will probably be assessed as well. Finally, there is a pressing need for incentives to drive investments in public transportation as well as in “smart” community designs that shorten the trip between home and job.

Coal and oil—the real “Axis of Evil” in the United States today—present a major challenge in the context of climate change. The nation has taken strong actions to reduce coal-fired power, yet it faces an electric power marketplace dominated by coal that may discourage vehicle electrification. And the current Gulf situation raises the ante on getting Beyond Petroleum. When BP first said that, they didn't really mean it … but we should!

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