July 20, 2008

The Global Energy Plight Might Just Get Worse

Get used to it.

Those aren't Joseph P. Kalt's exact words, but they echo what many these days are saying about the high cost of oil and overall energy concerns.

Kalt, the Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, made a conference call presentation July 10 for 39 newspaper reporters, editors and publishers from 20 newspaper companies.

Sponsored by the Suburban Newspapers of America, Kalt said the global energy problem will get worse before it gets better and the problem might not be solvable.

Ouch! One minute I'm feeling somewhat cocky, or at least optimistic, about living in a state that has an enviable energy future, based in large part on our diversity of resources and opportunity. Then I get the sobering news, deflating my confidence about relief, even if not until a few years down the road - as I'm told by a highly respected expert that maybe nothing we do really matters.

He might be right, but I'm still glad I live in North Dakota, where we are blessed with oil, coal, wind and other natural resources.

Nonetheless, Kalt made a compelling case for a bleak American and global future when it comes to energy.

The basic facts for this perpetual crisis, he said, lead to the reality that we will have a 15- to 20- to 25-year period where oil will dominate energy prices. Consider the following:

* There is tremendous growth and demand in and from China, India and beyond. A third of the world's population lives in China and India, and China's demand for oil has grown nearly 400 percent (in barrels a day) from 1980 to 2007. China's energy consumption has gone from just under 40 quadrillion Btu in 1997 to nearly 70 quadrillion Btu in 2007.

* The United States and the world are fossil-fuel economies, and there isn't an endless supply; nor can they always be converted easily, or in an environmentally pleasing way.

* There have been massive conservation efforts since 1970 and pressures place limitations on development, yet the demand continues to grow, especially in developing counties where income is up 40-45 percent since 1980.

* And, oil is increasingly concentrated in the Middle East.

Some of the numbers and facts in Kalt's presentation are staggering: Two billion people (most Americans) have modern energy conveniences, like flipping on a light switch as needed. Two billion have intermittent energy conveniences, such as a town's generator running for a couple of hours a couple of times a day. And 2 billion people lack modern energy conveniences, facing daily tasks such as cooking on an open fire.

Petroleum is the source of 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption, followed by natural gas (23 percent), coal (22 percent) and nuclear power (8 percent). All renewable energy - solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass and wind - account for only 7 percent of U.S. energy consumption. The world usage numbers are similar.

Kalt did not suggest doing away with any of the sources, only increasing the percentage of renewable energy, or new developments. But that, he says, has been the problem for years, using presidents Carter and Bush as examples.

In 1980, in his state of the union address, Carter said: "We must take whatever actions are necessary to reduce our dependence on foreign oil ..."

In his state of the union address in 2008, Bush said: "... Our security, our prosperity and our environment all require reducing our dependence on oil."

World energy use will increase 50-60 percent in the next 25 years, according to Kalt, which means "rising prices, heightened political and military conflict, and fertile fields for political demagogues."

There's never been another time in most of our lives when it has been so evident that energy has tentacles connected to all aspects of our lives. And it seems there is a bumpy road ahead, even if North Dakota's ride appears a bit smoother.

The world needs the best of our leaders to chart our courses. Status quo will no longer be good enough. As individuals, and nations, we need to adapt. It really is time to get over it, get used to it - and get on with it, making the best of it.

(You can reach editor John Irby at 250-8266 or [email protected] and go to www.bismarcktribune.com/ blog/?w=thepaper&e_id=2671/ to read his blog.)

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