The Persian Gulf War has highlighted a lesson we should have learned long ago. As a congressman during the 1973 Arab oil embargo, I voted for and strongly supported laws and programs that put our energy policy on the right track.
Unfortunately, under the administrations of the past 10 years, virtually all of those programs have been gutted. Instead of pursuing a rational energy policy, we have encouraged waste of our precious resources, discouraged conservation and reduced or eliminated numerous alternative energy programs that held the promise of energy self-sufficiency.I would like to offer a three-tiered approach to energy independence:
First, in the short term, we must develop other sources of fossil fuels, notably natural gas, enhanced recovery in existing oil fields and Utah's relatively clean coal. Second, we must promote energy conservation. We waste more than most countries consume, using fully one-quarter of all the Earth's energy with only 6 percent of the population. Third, we must seriously pursue alternative means of producing energy as though our future lifestyles depend on it - because they do.
The world will eventually wean itself from oil, since oil reserves are obviously finite. The only dispute is on the date. But we have a choice. Instead of reacting to crisis after crisis, we can find and develop alternatives now.
Up to one million barrels of oil a day, more than the amount we imported from Iraq and Kuwait, could be saved by short- and long-term switching from oil to natural gas. This relatively clean, abundant and evenly-distributed source already provides 23 percent of the nation's energy and could replace oil in many power plants and some vehicles.
Enhanced recovery in existing oil fields makes good sense. Why propose tax incentives for the development of pristine areas like the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for new oil development when two-thirds of the oil in existing fields is still unrecovered in the ground?
Utah's abundant clean coal also provides part of the answer, although its environmental cost has to be carefully considered and mitigated. Coal gasification could make a valuable contribution to expanding the supply of natural gas.
The long-term energy answer lies in conservation.
A 10 percent reduction in domestic oil use would result in a 20 percent reduction in imported oil. A three-mile-per-gallon increase in auto mileage would save more oil than drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge could ever produce.
Efforts to conserve oil have largely been ignored over the past decade because of cheap oil. Efforts to increase mileage requirements for automobiles to 40 miles per gallon by the year 2001 will probably succeed this Congress. Such fuel economy would save three million barrels of oil a day - nearly half of all U.S. imports.
An oil import fee would encourage both conservation and the domestic production of oil and gas, while generating revenues for deficit reduction. I have long been a supporter of a per-barrel fee on oil, which would be more useful than an across-the-board tax on gasoline in weaning us from dependence on foreign oil.
We can achieve long-term energy independence and a clean environment by developing a combination of "renewable" power technologies.
But this energy production will cost more than conventional methods and current law does not require utilities to choose alternative methods of electricity generation at greater cost - even if the savings in environmental and health costs more than make up for the difference.
Would a majority of Americans pay 20 percent more for energy if it meant a self-sufficient and clean America, and better health for all Americans? This is a rhetorical question, but one we should be willing to discuss.
Solar plants are currently operating in the deserts of Southern California, and will soon provide 600 megawatts of clean energy at competitive cost. Because the sun shines liberally on the Intermountain West, solar power could make a significant contribution to Western energy needs.
Other forms of renewable energy that deserve more attention and a renewed federal commitment include wind energy (currently providing the nation less than one-half of 1 percent of its power), geothermal energy (less than one-half of 1 percent as well) and biomass energy (burning wood or other organic matter to generate electricity, about 5 percent of U.S. energy).
The nuclear option is a tempting quick fix, but before we greatly expand the 7 percent of our nation's energy needs currently met by nuclear power, we must find better answers for waste transport and disposal, not to mention the protection of human health and the reduction of the threat of nuclear proliferation.
The age of massive hydroelectric power projects is over. About 10 percent of our energy comes from this source, but future great dams would mean the flooding of irreplaceable canyons that have so far been spared because of their importance and beauty.
Small-scale hydro projects are a more likely alternative and, if carefully sited, could make a significant contribution to providing clean energy with minimal environmental damage.
Does the gradual disappearance of oil mean we need to drill and probe every inch of our planet, like an addict searching for just one more fix? Will one more month of world supply be worth the disruption of the spectacular Alaska National Wildlife Refuge? Will today's climate of speculation fuel and oil rush into Utah's pristine lands?
A coherent national energy policy must be based on conservation and renewable energy. This will not only benefit our nation's environment, health and economy but lead the way for the rest of the world as well.
(Rep. Wayne Owens is the Democratic congressman in Utah's 2nd District.)