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Column: Foot-dragging has put U.S. behind the curve on energy

With all the holiday goings-on, scant notice was given to the bipartisan National Committee on Energy Policy’s report on strategies for addressing America’s long-term energy challenges.

More than two years in development, leading experts from industry, government, labor, academia, and environmental and consumer groups participated in formulating recommendations for addressing oil security, natural gas supply, the future of nuclear energy, climate change, and other issues.

The upshot (to no one’s particular surprise): The United States will be dependent on fossil fuels, chiefly petroleum, for decades to come, says William Reilly, committee co-chair.

Solutions, the experts say, hinge chiefly on increased exploration to boost supplies, conservation to improve efficiency, policies to address energy challenges, and increased investment in alternative fuels.

But, they say, ethanol, solar, wind, biomass, hydrogen, and other alternative power forms can be expected to satisfy only a smidgen of this country’s (and the world’s) voracious appetite for energy.

And more than 30 years after the Arab oil embargo sent sticker shock through an energy-hungry world, this country is no nearer to a meaningful, coherent, realistic energy policy than it was when there were long lines for gasoline and consumers and government were swearing “never again.”

But the oil spigots reopened and over the years, despite the ups and downs occasioned by OPEC machinations and energy crises of varying magnitude, the United States has never been able to muster the fortitude to buckle down and get serious about reducing its dependence on imported oil.

Gas prices have recently soared above $2 per gallon in much of the country, but nobody much seemed to care. As long as the pumps don’t run dry, why worry about tomorrow?

“The near-term key to reducing oil price shocks is curbing U.S. demand and increasing world supply,” William Reilly says. “We have to do both, and we have to make big investments in alternatives like bio-fuels from domestic crops and agricultural waste.”

Well, duh. Shades of the 1970s, when “bio-fuels” and conservation were the mantras de jour and researchers were making fuel from everything from garbage dumps to cottonwood trees. But those fuels weren’t price-competitive with Mideast oil and nobody was willing to say, “We’ll bite the bullet and pay more now in order to build an energy infrastructure that won’t be in total thrall to Arab sheiks in the future.”

While the United States fiddled and faddled and poured trillions into Big Oil’s coffers, Brazil was developing an ethanol industry and now 40 percent of that country’s cars run on 100 percent ethanol, while the rest use gasoline blended with 22 percent ethanol. Brazil, the world’s largest producer of ethanol (chiefly from sugarcane), uses nearly 4 billion gallons of ethanol per year, compared to only 1.7 billion gallons in the United States, where it’s blended with gasoline at only a 10 percent rate.

Germany is expected to use 750 million gallons of biodiesel this year. In the U.S., biodiesel is in its infancy — just last year finally getting government subsidy assistance.

The commission estimates its recommendations could cut U.S. oil consumption by 10 percent to 15 percent by 2025.

It would be a start… however belated. Don’t bet on it happening.

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