Energy security was the issue on the table Monday at a public forum at Rice University's James Baker Institute in Houston. Experts on a panel agreed that diversifying energy sources is a key way of reducing dependence on foreign oil, but they questioned the will of politicians to take the necessary steps.
The topic of energy security includes everything from threats against oil shipments through the Straits of Hormuz to global warming and the need to find alternative fuels that will lessen dependence on fossil fuels.
Panelist Terry Hallmark, director of risk assessment for the Houston-based IHS company, said he is pessimistic about the energy future, because of the many threats he sees around the world.
"There is so much of it outside our boundaries and outside of our control that I do not know exactly what one might do," he said. "But, for one thing, I think Churchill said, diversify, diversify, diversify. Change as much as you can in terms of the fuel sources you are dependent upon."
Hallmark noted that energy nationalism is on the rise again, especially in Russia and in such Latin American nations as Venezuela and Bolivia. He also noted that nearly 80 percent of the world's known oil reserves are controlled by national oil companies, some of which respond to political leaders who are not friendly to the United States. He said developing other sources of energy would give the country more flexibility in dealing with crises that are bound to occur.
One way of diversifying would be to provide government incentives to the automotive industry to produce more hybrid vehicles and flexible fuel vehicles, according to Gal Luft, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.
"As long as you have millions of cars that have the capability, that gives incentives to the market to bring the fuel, that gives incentives to the distributors to offer the pumps and the infrastructure," he said. "Then we take it one step further. We need to invest a lot of money in battery technology. Thirty million dollars is not enough. Much more needs to go into battery technology. The third thing I would do is tell people the truth, because what happens is our politicians do not tell the truth."
Luft said politicians tend to favor programs like ethanol, an alcohol fuel derived from corn or other plant material. He says ethanol offers little in terms of real energy efficiency, but offers a great deal in political terms, especially in the corn-growing states of the U.S. Midwest.
But panelist Richard Sears took a different view. He is Vice President for Exploration and Deepwater Technical Evaluation at the Royal Dutch Shell company, as well as a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He expressed the view that various efforts at solving the energy problem may hold promise.
"Technology, over time, solves problems," he said. "It creates efficiencies. It is the not-quite-right hybrids of today that are laying the groundwork for the much better plug-in hybrids of tomorrow. And it is the not-quite-right corn-based ethanol of today that is laying the groundwork for some smarter, biomass-based fuel that truly is sustainable tomorrow."
The panelists agreed that what is really necessary is for politicians and their constituents to fully recognize the problems posed by our current energy policies and the need to address them seriously. Gal Luft said that will involve common citizens showing a willingness to reduce their energy consumption.
"These problems will only be addressed through some sort of sacrifice," he added. "It is not that a bunch of people in Washington will wave a magic wand and the problem will go away. We are the problem. I am sorry to say it, but we are the problem."
Luft said people need to understand that problems like climate change and dependence on foreign oil cannot be solved by any one new technology or small gestures at conservation. Among other things, he suggested people reduce the size of the houses they must heat in the winter and cool in the summer, cut back on the amount they drive, and support policy changes that would give a real boost to alternative energy development.