American energy policy has always been messed up. It was most messy when the main source of energy was animal muscle and the streets were full of animal by-products. When fossil fuels gradually replaced animal-based energy and the streets got cleaner, public health improved. For the hundred years or so when coal was king, the price in ruined lives and environmental degradation was heavy, but on balance, the changeover to fossil fuels was not a bad thing.
Over the last century and a half, the average standard of living of people throughout the Western world has improved immensely. Even in places such as Asia and Africa, the trickle-down effects, in terms of less hunger and better overall health, were considerable. In some parts of Asia, such as South Korea and Japan, the fossil fuel revolution has given the vast majority of people a lifestyle indistinguishable from that of Western countries.
Today, however, America's vulnerability to the international oil market is playing havoc with both its foreign policy and its balance of trade. President Barack Obama's decision to delay the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver oil derived from the tar sands of Canada's Province of Alberta to US refineries, is seen as a blow to the North American energy industry. It is hard to understand why the President, apart from appeasing a small group of public union workers who he is hoping will vote for him in next year's election, wants the US to import more oil from the Middle East or other unfriendly places and less from Canada.
In 2008, there were roughly 100 rigs drilling in US waters for offshore energy; in 2010, we are lucky to have about 50 rigs searching for oil and gas in US-controlled Gulf of Mexico. This is not only killing US jobs but it is also eroding the hard-won body of knowledge and expertise needed to keep this essential industry alive. The 2009 Deepwater Horizon accident has long been used by the administration to prevent the full-scale resumption of drilling in the Gulf. The recent definitive report on the accident by the National Academy of Engineering shows that the blowout was caused by the failure to use the right kind of cement to seal the well. This should be easy to fix and there is now no reason whatsoever for the government not to resume handing out permits to qualified exploration firms.
The reluctance of the US government to support the US energy industry is a symptom of a wider problem -- one that did not begin with the Obama administration and will not end with its departure. The environmental movement is well funded and far more politically astute than the corporations which produce the energy that powers the US economy. The Greens have long maintained a laser-like focus on politics, whereas the oil companies and the others see politics as an essential, but minor part of their job.
The Energy Crisis that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War should have been a wake up call to both the American people and the US government. At the time, it was evident that business as usual would result in sustained danger to America's economic and strategic position. Yet for reasons of domestic politics, Washington was never able to come up with a coherent and realistic way to fulfill the promises that so many US leaders have made regarding "energy independence."
The Nixon administration claimed that nuclear power was going to solve America's energy problem. As at the time, the main requirement was for gasoline, diesel and kerosene to propel cars trucks and aircraft, this claim missed the point. Without liquid fuels, the transportation technology available in the 1970s simply could not do the job. What Nixon's people did achieve was to arouse the hostility of many Americans, and to provide them with a new cause after the fall of South Vietnam in April, 1975.
Ten years ago it was widely believed that the world was running low on oil and natural gas and that the price of these commodities would rise to prices high enough to open the way for the development of so-called unconventional or "alternative" energy sources such as wind, solar or natural gas, although it seems as if the prophecy about natural gas is not going to come true, at least not until the middle of the 21st century at the earliest.
Alternative, or so-called clean, sources of energy, have, at present, the unfortunate characteristic of being uneconomical. They must be either heavily subsidized, supported by government regulation, or both. The supposed threat from climate change has recently been used as an excuse to push unreliable and costly energy sources, such as wind turbines, onto the public.
So far, power in the form of photovoltaic cells have been around for more than 40 years, since the mid-1970s; most environmentalists have at least paid lip service to its potential as a source of clean energy. Sadly, the progress that solar energy has made towards becoming economically viable as a source of electric power has been slow. The efficiency of current commercial solar cells hovers around 8-to-15 %. Boeing's spectrolabs division has produced specialized and expensive solar cells with efficiencies as high as 45%. However it should be obvious that if solar electricity is to become a major player in the global energy market, its efficiency will have to be raised to 70% or higher, and its costs seriously reduced.
The US government could play a useful role in reaching the goal of a 70% efficient solar cell, but it would have to abandon its current attempt to jump start the solar power industry, and instead begin to fund basic scientific research on a massive scale. It will take several breakthroughs in physics, materials science, computer engineering and other disciplines to make solar energy a workable source of clean energy. Eventually, with the right kind of effort, there is every reason to believe that economically viable photovoltaic technology will be available in ten or twenty years.
Regardless of the accuracy or the falsity of the anthropogenic global warming theory, the world's demand for clean electricity is going to increase drastically in the 21st century. To waste money, however, on commercially unviable projects such as Solyndra and other politically favored firms is exactly the wrong approach for Washington to take.
The former head of President Obama's National Security Council, Marine General Jim Jones, speaking in support of the Keystone XL pipeline project, said, "I do not think the United States has a comprehensive strategy for energy writ large." History shows how correct he is. Even if energy policy in America will always be messy, it does not have to be stupid.