The Straight Skinny on Energy (Updated)

In his column this morning Tom Friedman wonders what a presidential candidate would say to the American people about energy policy if he or she were free to tell the electorate the truth:

For starters, he or she would explain that there is no short-term fix for gasoline prices. Prices are what they are as a result of rising global oil demand from India, China and a rapidly growing Middle East on top of our own increasing consumption, a shortage of “sweet” crude that is used for the diesel fuel that Europe is highly dependent upon and our own neglect of effective energy policy for 30 years.

I am really, genuinely torn about this column since I agree with the gist of it but, unfortunately, disagree strongly on particulars. For example, contrary to Tom Friedman our oil consumption isn’t increasing its decreasing and the Indians, Chinese, and people in the Middle East are shielded at least partially from the rising price of oil because their governments subsidize the price of oil, i.e. sell it at less that world market costs, and, consequently, they subsidize gas consumption and inefficient practices.

He continues:

We need to make a structural shift in our energy economy. Ultimately, we need to move our entire fleet to plug-in electric cars. The only way to get from here to there is to start now with a price signal that will force the change.

I agree that we need to make a structural shift in our energy economy and that the good news in high oil prices is that they will encourage that transition. But the idea that we will make a short term or even middle term transition is poppycock. Electric cars powered with what? Coal-fired power plants are really too harmful to the environment, at least at the current state of technology. And it takes decades to get a nuclear power plant online.

Additionally, today’s power grid just isn’t capable of managing that kind of increase in the amount of electricity that’s moved around the country.

That’s a solution for generations not years or even decades.

As I’ve said repeatedly the straight dope on oil is that we’ll be dependent on it for a good long time and not only should we start removing our subsidies on its consumption, we should start encouraging our trading partners to eliminate theirs.


One more point I’d intended to mention in the body of the post: the auto manufacturers don’t have the ability to produce electric cars in the quantities that would be required. They might in five or ten years but they don’t now. The wait lists for Priuses aren’t because Toyota thinks it’s fun to wait in line (and, yes, I know that the Prius is not an electric car, it’s a hybrid. The principle remains the same).

2 comments… add one
  • I wonder about diesel in the shorter term. I’m driving one right now — nearly everyone in Italy does — and the mileage is spectacular. Before leaving the states I gave serious consideration to the Mercedes E-class diesel which gets something like 34 mpg with all the torque of an 8 cylinder gas engine. Why aren’t we at least considering diesels more seriously in the short term?

  • Suzanne Link

    As I understand it, the weak dollar has caused oil to be a more attractive investment… As stock values go up, the price goes up. It’s only when demand falls that the price will fall. So, we all need to drive as little as possible.

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