Speaker U.S. Must Dump Oil

March 19, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — If the United States wants energy independence, it needs to become independent from oil and gasoline, said Vijay Vaitheeswaran, an author and correspondent for The Economist.

“This country will never be energy-independent until we get off of oil,” he said, noting that the supplies in the United States are not enough to sustain the country’s energy needs, even if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is tapped for its oil resources.

Vaitheeswaran spoke to about 140 people as the keynote speaker at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and AquinasCollegeCenter for Sustainability’s Emerging Energy Strategies event on March 12. He said that beyond the fact that the United States cannot sustain itself, there are three forces making gasoline and oil unsustainable as an energy source.

The first is the link between energy and geopolitics; the second is that access to modern energy is not possible for many in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Caribbean; and third is the potential for environmental harm.

With two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves in five countries, including Saudi Arabia, Vaitheeswaran said that percentage will only rise as other reserves and supplies are tapped out, and as more energy is needed for developing nations such as China, India, South Africa and Brazil

Vaitheeswaran said that China is especially concerned because the country needs oil from the Middle East, and if China were to come into conflict with the United States, the U.S. could cut China out of that supply.

“This is a source of tremendous insecurity for China, because they are not able to protect their energy resources,” he said.

Because of this, Vaitheeswaran said, it is in both China’s and the United States’ best interests to promote peace in the Middle East, but differences in philosophy arise as China is more relaxed about its missile technology and has no ties to Israel.

Vaitheeswaran said he is not predicting a war, but is pointing out the conflicts that are related to oil and access to energy.

The second issue of oil and gasoline not meeting the needs of developing countries has led to many health problems, Vaitheeswaran said. Without access to modern energy, people are using dirty fuels such as dung to heat their living spaces, which he said is one of the leading preventable causes of death in children.

There is also harm that comes from more countries and more people gaining access to modern fuels. As more and more people can afford cars, fuel consumption rises, along with the amount of greenhouse gases. Coal consumption also is causing increased pollution; coal plants are built at the rate of one per week in China, he said.

Vaitheeswaran said cities and countries have dealt with pollution problems in the past, citing issues with acid rain in the United States and poisonous fog in London, but when pollution is on a global level, it can be harder to alleviate and change, with the possibility of irreversible trigger points.

He also discussed the possibility of oil companies becoming leaders in green energy, which, he said — despite gains in green fuels and some research — is improbable. Oil companies may be spending $1 billion on exploration and production of renewables, but they are also spending $15 billion on oil and gas.

With all of the forces working in energy resources, Vaitheeswaran said it’s prime time for three trends:

**Liberalization of energy markets to enable more innovation in what he calls “one of the least innovative industries on earth.”

**A different kind of environmentalism where the big businesses and companies are friends rather than foes of environmentalists.

**Technological innovations leading to the “golden era of energy technologies.”

Before these trends can emerge, Vaitheeswaran said, there needs to be changes in legislation to enable them.

Vaitheeswaran said he believes that as soon as there are reasons to solve the energy issues, innovation will take place and the United States will find a solution.

Although companies such as Toyota have developed hybrid cars, Vaitheeswaran said this is not the solution to the problem, but rather a stepping-off point to find the true solution. He said he would not be surprised if, in the future, innovations in Silicon Valley and the automotive world lead to a partnership where companies such as Intel are the car manufacturers of the future.

“Technology is shifting in ways that even Toyota may be disadvantaged in the future,” he said.

The March 12 event also included discussions on the 21st Century Electric Energy Policy from the Michigan Public Service Commission, best practice strategies for business, and case studies in energy innovation.    

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