With gas prices at record highs and the Senate engaged in a fruitless struggle to find a new way forward on energy policy, the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming held a timely hearing this morning on “The Future of Oil.”
The general consensus: the long-term prognosis for global oil supply and demand ain’t good, and the U.S. had better start doing something different, quick. But what exactly? No consensus on that point.
Many Republicans in Congress — and several of the organizations represented on today’s panel — maintain that the solution to our energy woes is more domestic drilling for oil and gas. Others — including Select Committee Chair Ed Markey (D-Mass.) — argue that the solution is investments that will move us away from reliance on fossil fuels.
“If we do not have a plan, there’s going to have to be a high price that our economy is going to pay,” said Markey, who stressed the need to invest in green technology and efficiency. He noted that while the U.S. has only 2 percent of the world’s oil supply, we have demonstrated strength in the technology sector that, if we invest in it properly, could change both our energy path and the world’s. “If we don’t use that strength, we are ultimately going to be subservient to the geopolitical whims of the Middle East,” said Markey.
Guy Caruso, administrator of the Energy Information Administration in the Department of Energy, testified to the severity of oil price increases — in case anyone wasn’t convinced yet. Gas prices are expected to hit an average of $4.15 by August, with prices for the whole year projected to average $0.97 a gallon more than in 2007. Caruso noted that provisions in last year’s energy bill — including the first fuel-economy increase in nearly 30 years and the creation of a renewable fuel standard — should reduce oil use by 1.8 million barrels a day by 2030. Of course, additional improvements to efficiency could improve that figure.
All of the panelists agreed that there should be significantly more investment in renewable-energy R&D, but they had starkly different opinions on what to do about oil.
Karen Harbert, executive vice president of the Institute for 21st Century Energy, testified on behalf of the “drill domestic” crowd. “We are not running out of resources, we are running out of access to resources,” she said. “We are depriving the American consumer of opportunity.”
Amy Myers Jaffe, energy studies fellow at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy of Rice University, testified that the country needs to diversify its fuel sources, noting that in the ’70s, the United States stopped relying on oil for electricity and home heating. The same needs to be done for automobiles, she said, which use the bulk of the oil consumed in the country today. And in order to diversify, companies are going to have to invest in research and development, she said, citing a report that found that the five largest oil companies spend very little on R&D each year — less than half of what General Motors or Microsoft does, she said.
Myers Jaffe also rebutted the folks who are lobbying for the government to allow oil and gas drilling in new offshore areas and places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, noting that oil companies aren’t spending money on exploration in the places they’re already allowed to drill.
Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s lands protection program, testified on behalf of the “no new drilling, no way, no how” set. He cited estimates that 80 percent of the undiscovered oil and gas in the U.S. is in areas that are already open for exploration, much of which isn’t being tapped right now. Manuel painted the future of oil as bleak — and the future of the country as bleak if we don’t wean ourselves.
“When you look to the future of oil, we hope you will see clean energy and renewable power,” Manuel told the committee.
Committee members, of course, also had different takes on the best approach to the fuel problem. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) nicely summed up his view: “As long as we rely on dead dinosaurs for our energy, we’re doomed to global warming and high energy prices.”