Two Takes: The U.S. Needs to End Its Energy Dependence

This dependence is economically unsustainable and dangerous for our children.

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Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he runs the blog ClimateProgress.org.

America must become energy independent in the next four decades. And with the right political leadership, we will.

Americans will spend more on oil this year than on the Pentagon, homeland security, and Iraq, sending more than half a trillion dollars abroad, much of it to undemocratic countries. This figure could rise 50 percent if, as cbic World Markets predicts, gas prices climb to nearly $7 a gallon by 2010.

This dependence is economically unsustainable and ruinous for our children. Emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide have us on track to raise global temperatures 10 degrees above preindustrial levels by century's end. Such warming would melt the world's ice, raising sea levels and destroying inland glaciers that provide water to a billion people. It could turn one third of the planet into desert and make the U.S. Southwest a dust bowl. It would wipe out most species and leave oceans hot, acidified, and largely lifeless.

Avoiding this grim fate means rich countries must cut carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2050 to keep the increase in global temperatures under 4 degrees. The deepest reductions will come from curtailing the use of oil and coal, which burn inefficiently and produce a lot of carbon.

Domestic drilling isn't part of a serious national energy plan because it won't reduce our oil dependence or help achieve climate targets. The Energy Information Administration says that offshore drilling would have little impact on production or prices even in 2030 and that drilling in Alaska would cut gas prices only 2 cents by 2025.

In the mid-1990s, I helped run a federal program that worked with businesses to create low-carbon alternatives to coal and oil like renewable power and hybrid cars. Low oil prices and inadequate technology slowed change. Now soaring oil prices are driving a shift to fuel-efficient cars. But federal law requires new cars in 2020 to get only 35 miles per gallon—less than cars in Europe or China today. We should aim for all new cars to get more than 100 miles per gallon by 2040, which requires low-carbon alternatives.

One option, hydrogen fuel cell cars, requires technology breakthroughs. As for biofuels, using crops to make energy is unwise and will not greatly reduce greenhouse gases. As energy and food prices rise, global population grows, and climate change reduces arable land and water supplies, biofuels will be scaled back.

Next-generation, low-carbon cellulosic biofuels are being developed, and early bio-refineries are being built. But they will probably not get enough market share to lower oil prices.

Cheap spark. Energy independence requires protecting Americans from rising oil prices. Only electricity is a much cheaper fuel than gasoline. It has a per-mile cost about one fifth that of gasoline, even when made from low-carbon sources. Israel and Denmark are already shifting to all-electric cars.

The U.S. transition will begin with plug-in hybrids that can go 20 to 40 miles on electricity. Since most people drive under 30 miles a day, such hybrids can save a lot of gas. No breakthroughs are required, and ongoing private spending will lower battery costs through technological improvements and economies of scale. Toyota, gm, and Volkswagen plan to introduce plug-ins in the United States in 2010.

At first, the cars will cost several thousand dollars more to make. But with a consumer tax credit program, plug-ins will become affordable, especially since energy and car companies will likely lease the batteries to drivers. Such cars will pay for themselves in fuel savings. Cellulosic biofuels can then be used for longer-distance travel.

All we would then need for climate-friendly energy independence is an electric grid by 2050 that produces few carbon emissions. No breakthroughs are required. We need regulatory reform to foster efficiency, a carbon price to reflect global warming's harm, and investment in a smart grid. Efficiency and alternative fuel sources can then meet demand.