American independence from foreign oil possible

October 20, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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America really does need to achieve independence from foreign oil — and it is possible, according to Jay Hakes. Hakes, a writer and former government official with roots in Grand Rapids, points to the significant progress in energy independence made during the Gerald R. Ford administration.

"We solved this problem once before," said Hakes, when the U.S. reduced its imported energy use by half over the years 1977 to 1982.

"Gerald Ford did a lot more to contribute to that than most historians have realized. And Carter also contributed a lot to it," said Hakes.

Based on that, said Hakes, "we're a bunch of wimps today if we can't solve the problem, because the people back then" made a great deal of progress toward independence from foreign oil.

Hakes, who lived in Grand Rapids from the 5th through the 9th grade (1954-1959), headed the Energy Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy during most of the 1990s. Prior to that, he was a member of the Carter administration, most of that time as an assistant to Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus. He also worked with Florida governor (later senator) Bob Graham in numerous positions, including director of the governor's energy office. He is a former professor of political science at the University of New Orleans and holds a doctorate from Duke University. He currently is the executive director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

Hakes' book came out in August. "A Declaration of Energy Independence: How Freedom from Foreign Oil Can Improve National Security, Our Economy, and the Environment" emphasizes three main points. The first is that U.S. dependence on foreign oil really is a serious problem, and second, the U.S. has made progress toward energy independence before, so it can happen again. His third focus is on some of the technology available today that may deliver that independence.

"There actually are some people out there who are saying international trade is a good thing and we just shouldn't worry about it,” Hakes said. “The one piece of information I come back with is, our negative trade balance is well over one billion dollars a day, and that’s larger than our trade deficit with China (and) much larger than (the cost of the wars in) Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think it weakens the dollar, it weakens the economy," he added.

Although the American consumer is fixated on "that big price at the pump," Hakes said there are other consequences to consider.

A lot of the dollars spent on petroleum ends up in countries "which are often the hot beds of terrorists. In one sense, we’re funding the people who are fighting us," he said.

There are options to foreign oil, but Hakes said none of the solutions offer immediate results: It takes a number of years to see the benefits.

Gerald Ford was a classic example: "None of the benefits (of decisions made during his administration) actually occurred while he was still president, even though he did a lot of the things that made it happen."

The people of America should not ask politicians to produce immediate results, he said, but instead should put in place things than produce results over the long term.

"A lot of people think the auto efficiency standards came in under Carter, but they were actually passed back in 1975 when Ford was president," he said.

One of the major solutions pursued then is still a high priority today — the push for more fuel-efficient cars.

New, renewable sources of fuel — biofuels — are also a solution, but Hakes said there are better biofuels than corn-based ethanol. He said he believes the U.S. must eventually move to algae-based biofuels, which he thinks offer the best technical option for powering automobiles. With oil at $100 a barrel or higher, venture capitalists including Bill Gates are investing in research to find a cost-effective, environmentally friendly way to turn algae into fuel for vehicles.

Scientists in New Zealand, Israel and the U.S. are experimenting with algae, which reproduces and grows rapidly and produces more fats than other plants. It can be grown in all kinds of conditions, and it consumes carbon dioxide. That means power plants may be able to divert their carbon dioxide emissions into algae ponds or tanks, reducing a suspected source of global warming while "feeding" the algae at the same time. Corn and other plant-derived fuels, on the other hand, require much more energy to produce.

In September, Bill Gates' Cascade Investment and three other companies invested about $100 million in Sapphire Energy, a San Diego company producing fuel from algae and other microorganisms. In October, the Boeing aircraft company announced a new organization of aviation fuel users to support development of algae fuel.

Hakes said wind and solar energy are also "a big part of mix, but I don’t think we should expect (wind and solar) to solve all of the problem. Both of them are intermittent forms of power. They don’t run 24 hours a day."

He said he feels the same way about offshore drilling. He favors expanding those areas where drilling is permitted but would not expect that additional oil to make us independent of foreign oil.

Some of the things that were done in the Ford and Carter administrations to reduce foreign oil consumption, in addition to greater fuel efficiency in autos, included decontrol of oil prices which, Hakes said, meant people paid the market price, not below market price, for gasoline. That was also the time when power companies were ordered to move away from use of oil to generate electricity, and there was also a big push for home insulation. The Alaska pipeline was built then, adding more to the domestic supply of oil.

"There's a lot of different things that we have to do to solve this problem. The glib phrase that I and others use is: "There's no silver bullet, but there is a lot of silver buckshot."

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