Oil concerns could boost prospects for green energy

By Leon Droun Keith, The Associated Press
Friday October 26, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Heightened concern about America’s dependence on foreign oil should provide the strongest incentive yet for the country to boost research in renewable energy and improve energy efficiency, advocates for alternatives to fossil fuels say. 

Foreign countries produced more than half the oil America consumed last year, with Persian Gulf countries — namely Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait — producing close to a quarter of those imports. 

Supporters of alternative energy say the Middle East’s political uncertainty should prompt U.S. policy makers to aggressively pursue homegrown energy sources such as fuel cells, biomass and wind and solar power. 

“The less encumbered our foreign policy is to economic interests, the better,” said Hal Harvey, president of The Energy Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes renewable energy. “When you’re sort of a drug addict trying to negotiate with a dealer, you don’t have a lot of cards.” 

Even if Congress approves a contentious plan to open oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the United States cannot come close to gaining energy independence without renewable sources, said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. 

Last week, Reid and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., introduced legislation to renew the federal tax credit for wind power and expand it to include solar, biomass, geothermal and other renewable energies. 

He said concerns over national security eventually will draw more legislators from both parties toward expanding renewable energy. 

“We’re at a point now where I think we have no alternative,” Reid said. 

Others, however, warn that proponents of increased domestic oil drilling continue to take a narrow view of the nation’s energy policy. 

Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the House Resources and Science committees, said colleagues who see increased U.S. drilling as the most important way to reduce dependence on foreign oil aren’t budging. 

“People have used what happened to reinforce their previous points of view,” said Udall, who supports some additional drilling but opposes President Bush’s plan to tap the Arctic refuge. 

He said the United States must diversify its energy sources, saying the country will have no choice but to rethink its energy policy as world oil reserves shrink in the decades ahead. 

“We can go there with a lot of pain, or we can do it on our own timeframe,” he said. 

The national-security argument to reducing fossil-fuel use applies mainly to petroleum and the motor vehicles that consume most of it. 

Automakers, government officials and environmentalists speak optimistically about the potential of fuel-cell technology, which they say eventually could replace gasoline to power motor vehicles. 

The cells use energy generated when hydrogen, produced by anything from gasoline to electricity, bonds with oxygen to create water vapor. 

“We think it’s a key competitive race among manufacturers: Who’ll be first to produce large volumes of these vehicles?” General Motors spokesman Dave Barthmuss said. “I don’t know that we could move any faster.” 

It is expected to take a decade or more to make fuel cells affordable, to set up fueling stations and to ensure the vehicles safely handle the ultralight, flammable hydrogen they use. 

But in a sign the technology is progressing, GM and several other automakers on Friday will put 65 of their fuel-cell cars and other alternative-fuel vehicles to the test in the Michelin Challenge Bibendum. 

The three-day event includes performance tests at the California Speedway in Fontana and ends Sunday with a 226-mile road rally from the Los Angeles area to Las Vegas. 

California has been the source of other advances in alternative-fuel vehicles, thanks to efforts to clean up air that has ranked among the dirtiest in the nation. 

State and regional regulations and subsidies have helped create fleets of low-polluting cars, trucks and buses, including 40 electric postal vehicles unveiled last week in Los Angeles. 

Bush administration officials said the president’s national energy plan, which passed in the House but is languishing in the Senate, sets a course to increase the use of lower-polluting technologies to help reduce dependence on foreign oil. 

But they add that more domestic oil production is needed in the short term. 

They estimate more than 1 million barrels a day — about 20 percent of current U.S. production — could be extracted from the Arctic preserve and advocate drilling on other federal lands. 

Bush’s plan “was on target when it came out and it’s still on target today,” said David Garman, the U.S. Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy. 

More than half of the energy policy’s 105 recommendations relate to energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, programs for which the government is spending about $1.2 billion a year, Garman said. 

New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is pursuing an alternative to the Bush plan that increases annual research and development funding for energy efficiency programs and renewables to $1.7 billion by 2006 and that scales back increases in domestic oil development. 

The Bush plan doesn’t emphasize reducing oil consumption, Bingaman spokeswoman Jude McCartin said, and thus “would have us at the end of the day more dependent on foreign oil rather than less.”