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Informing the Energy Debate in a Presidential Election Year

Alex Chadwick is Host and Senior Correspondent for The Public Radio Energy Series BURN: An Energy Journal .  His two-hour election special “The Power of One,” airs in the coming week and looks at how individuals, new scientific ideas, grassroots initiatives and potentially game-changing inventions are informing the energy debate in this Presidential election year, and redefining America’s quest for greater energy independence.

Beth Foster interviews Chadwick about the issues.

Why should an understanding of energy issues matter in this election and what has been missing from the conversation so far?

AC:  Energy is fundamental to every economic and most non-economic aspects of our lives, and the fruits of technological development have arrived in the last two or three years.  We have access to a lot more energy, natural gas and oil than we expected. This is allowing us to remake our energy economy, with strong global geopolitical implications.

In an election year–when, presumably, candidates talk about what matters–the issue of climate change is ignored by both campaigns. But both campaigns are surely aware that the best projections out 25 years for global energy are very dire for anyone concerned about carbon emissions. The world economy will still rely on fossil fuels for 80 percent of energy needs…and about 40 percent more of them than we are using today.

What would the key differences be between a Romney and Obama administration?

AC:  In reality, there are few differences between the two…both parties are connected to the energy industry, a key component of the economy and a generous donor to politicians. The Obama Administration has approved regulations to raise fuel efficiency for cars to more than 50 miles-per-gallon, but neither campaign has been especially tough on energy

Why, then, do industry donations this year highly favor Republicans?

Because their hands-off regulatory approach is even more favorable than that of the Obama Administration.  An example: Governor Romney would end federal leasing of private development of oil and gas leasing on federal lands. That responsibility would be turned over to states.

Both parties say they favor more renewables, though the Republicans prefer to let the free market shape wind and solar while the Democrats are more inclined to nudge things along with federal tax incentives and loan guarantees. Governor Romney would likely ease regulations on coal; the Obama Administration is adopting new clean air policies that make coal-fired power plants more problematic.

Is U.S. energy independence a true reality?

AC:  When people and politicians talk about “energy independence”, what they mean is the Middle East. How much longer will our economy be held hostage by foreign energy cartels?

A secure energy source is highly desirable, obviously; we can’t make any kind of reliable plans without it. The question is, do we make ourselves stronger by building walls or by taking them down? The hydrocarbons of the Arab states–very high quality petroleum, relatively easy to access–are a global asset, something they certainly recognize in the global marketplace. That oil is important to the U.S., yes, but equally important to others. It is to everyone’s benefit to stabilize energy markets everywhere. If we could recognize and act on that simple truth, energy might become less of an issue. And that would be good for all of us.

The U.S. suddenly may become a net energy exporter within the next decade–at least for natural gas. We are also selling a lot of coal overseas, especially to China. But we are unlikely to become truly energy independent so long as we rely on petroleum as we do. While the U.S. has enormous reserves of hydrocarbons that can be formulated as petroleum (especially oil shale in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah), the process for accessing much of that is more complicated and expensive than drilling for oil as we know it today. While it is technically possible to get at these resources, it may be cheaper to buy oil on the open market. Energy is a global enterprise…everyone is in it, we are all interdependent.

If we did get closer to energy independence, what would it look like?  What are the trade-offs or downsides?

AC:  Energy resources are not evenly distributed. Certainly not traditional hydrocarbon sources, and the U.S. does not act in a vacuum. If we begin to value and exploit our own energy reserves in a way that we have not previously, others will surely react. What looks like energy independence to us may be seen as hoarding, or market manipulation by others. We could extract a lot more hydrocarbons than we do now, but they will be very expensive, and they will still carry more unavoidable costs in carbon emissions. Economies would change, distribution would change. But the world appetite for energy would not change. If we are completely independent, our ability to influence that appetite and how it is met may decline.

And one note: Real energy independence would likely involve one measure that truly would help both domestic and international markets–conservation. There is a paradox here. Some believe that conservation really only spurs greater resource use later. But at least initially, conservation means less demand, and that should mean lower prices, and that is good for everyone, even the producers who get a longer resource life.

Beth Foster is a Vice President in National Geographic Communications.