At the beginning of the current Bush administration we heard a lot about an “energy crisis,” in terms reminiscent of the 1970s. Big shortages ahead, we were told. Higher gas prices. Blackouts, brownouts. The answer, according to the administration’s energy plan, which also had a somewhat retro feel to it: more. More coal, more oil, more nukes. There was only one drawback to the plan, which, like so much else that was being bruited about before September 11, seems like an echo from another era: it didn’t address the two fundamental energy problems we face now and will continue to face for a long time.
The first is geopolitical. We are too heavily dependent on oil from the Persian Gulf. The chain of events leading to the horrors of September 11 runs right through the gulf region. It was, after all, to protect our supply of gulf oil that we went to war in 1990 (pieties about Kuwaiti sovereignty aside). And it was to protect that same supply that we have, since then, stationed U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. It is the presence of those U.S. forces, in close proximity to Islamic holy sites (far more than the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians), that has inflamed the unstable temperament of Osama bin Laden and his delusional followers.
What do we need this oil for? Not for generating power. Although much of the energy picture in the United States actually does recall the 1970s, there have been some significant changes. And one of them is that we don’t use much oil to make electricity. As Charles Mann tells us in the eye-opening piece that introduces this special issue of Technology Review, the fraction of U.S. electricity generated by burning oil has fallen from about 20 percent in 1973 to less than one percent today. So where is all that Persian Gulf oil going? Look no further than the tank of the SUV sitting in your neighbor’s driveway. Our entire transportation system is based on refined petroleum, and although some fuels the 767s and some moves the trains and boats, most of it fuels the American love affair with the road.