Two antidotes to Obama’s energy trance

candle in a glass

President Obama's energy plan leaves America in the dark. Now, two critics light a flame of truth. Photo: jamingray via Flickr.

President Obama’s speech on energy last week was at best an empty ritual and at worst, a cowardly collection of lies, fairy tales and demagoguery designed to pander to the worst impulses of the American public.

Yes, the president seemed to say, if gas prices stay too high, I know that you’ll vote against whoever’s in power.

But don’t vote against me, because I’m the guy who really wants to do everything it will take to keep you and your Explorer 4×4 on the freeway.

Count on two of the edgiest writers in the peak oil world today to provide a reality check.

Clusterfrack nation

As a Democrat, Obama had to throw a bone or two about renewables to the base. But he spent his real effort retailing one idea after another from the “all of the above” menu of dirty energy that Republicans have pushed for years —  tar sands, oil shale, natural gas fracking, offshore drilling, biofuels from Big Ag, nuclear power and a teeny weeny bit of efficiency.

James Howard Kunstler easily debunks each one.

Try oil, for example. Despite the claims of drilling fans, who apparently include the president, North America does not have vast resources of untapped crude. Taken together, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Coast and ANWR in Alaska may have up to 15 billion barrels that we could still pump. But since the US burns more than 7 billion barrels of oil yearly, all that untapped supply would only keep our beaters on the road for another couple years.

What these schemes have in common is not that they’ll work, but just that “they’re ideas the public wants to hear, whether they are truthful or not, because we don’t want to change the way we live.”

Missing was any serious discussion of saving energy through walkable neighborhoods or transit and rail, both of which Kunstler has been advocating for years.

The reason for this obvious idiocy is that it’s all about the cars. That’s all we care about in the USA, the cars. We can’t get over the cars. We can’t talk about anything except how we’ll find magical new ways to run all the cars. This is a very tragic sort of stupidity and if we don’t change our thinking about it, from the highest level on down, history is going to treat us very cruelly.

Radioactive arrogance

While Kunstler focuses on unconventional fossil fuels, Dmitry Orlov puts Obama’s other big energy fantasy, nuclear power, into stark moral perspective.

“Right now, America gets about one-fifth of our electricity from nuclear energy,” said President Obama.  “And I’m determined to ensure that it’s safe. So in light of what’s happened in Japan, I’ve requested a comprehensive safety review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make sure that all of our existing nuclear energy facilities are safe.  And we’re going incorporate those conclusions and lessons from Japan in design and the building of the next generation of plants. But we can’t simply take it off the table.”

This kind of talk clearly doesn’t reassure Orlov.

When he looks at how badly the situation in Fukushima is deteriorating (it could be worse than Chernobyl), Orlov thinks that nuclear power is beyond saving. “If we give up on nuclear energy, what will replace it?”

Nothing, probably. Let me try an example: if your lucrative murder-for-hire business suddenly runs afoul of a few silly laws (even though it has so far killed many fewer people than planes, trains or automobiles) that doesn’t mean that you should keep killing people until you find another source of income. Same thing with electricity: if it turns out that the way you’ve been generating it happens to be criminally negligent, then you shut it all down. If you have less electricity, you will use less electricity.

And if the world can’t make enough juice to run Times Square — and then to light up Shanghai and Delhi on top of that — then it could mean the end of economic growth. Today’s unemployment, home foreclosures and bankruptcies may become tomorrow’s new normal.

“Don’t worry about that,” Orlov says, “just keep the nuclear accidents to a bare minimum, or you won’t have anything else left to worry about.”

Post-market economy anyone?

Orlov reminds us that nuclear waste will be dangerous for more than a million years. And if that’s true, then it can never be right to bequeath a legacy of radioactive doom to whatever future lifeforms survive beyond human time just so that we can save a few cents per kWh to charge up our iPods after we get back from the gym.

Call me naive, but I wish that the president would grab the chance offered by the Deepwater Horizon anniversary later this month to give a real speech on energy — to say the words “peak oil” and pledge a moonshot program for conservation and renewables.

— Erik Curren

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  1. Matt says

    Another great article Eric.

    I too wish that Obama would say Peak Oil later this month. But you and I both know that as long as the government is owned by the rich and big business, that will never happen. The rich want to maintain the status quo and the poor are too stupid to realize that they have been lied to for the last 30 years.

    Even with the recent 32nd anniversary of Three Mile Island, the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl coming up in a few weeks, and now Fukushima, they are still saying that nuclear power is safe and pushing to build more plants in the US. The average Joe on the street doesn’t care, all they want is a cold beer and to watch their favorite show on TV. You remember history class the Roman Coliseum, bread and circus for the masses as the empire collapsed. Same here. We are witnessing the fall of the American Empire and the sad part is that most people either don’t care or don’t know.

  2. says

    Thanks for the kudos and for your provocative comments, Matt. These anniversaries you mention are the ones we should be hearing about in the press rather than the reality TV and other junk that takes up most of the cablesphere. I wonder, have most people tuned out of politics because they know it’s rotten? To give the devil his due, the Tea Party has mobilized a lot of ordinary folks to put down the Bud, get off their Barcaloungers and pick up a clipboard. If we could make national politics more meaningful, then maybe Joe Sixpack would be more willing to participate?

    That’s why I’m a fan of that constitutional amendment to declare that corporations are not persons. Then, how about some Teddy Roosevelt-style trust-busting? Finally, I’d like to see a people’s movement on the progressive side comparable to the Tea Party in influence. Individually, citizens each have very little influence, but as groups, we can do much more, as the Progressive Movement showed.

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