The subject of the nation's energy policy has once again been elevated to a place of prominence by a convergence of several recent events, including a spike in gasoline prices, efforts by the federal government to foster renewable energy sources on a large scale and a contentious political debate over the best way to achieve energy independence.
In Utah, the debate is playing out in literal fashion, as we have become something of a laboratory for experimentation on nearly all levels of energy development.
The Obama administration moved last week to fast-track the growth of solar energy facilities by creating 250,000 acres of solar "zones" in six Western states, including Utah. Federal funds have also been put to use by authorities in southeastern Utah to bring about development of so-called "wind farms" near the town of Monticello.
While such projects go forward, critics of the administration complain similar fast tracking has not been granted to other Utah energy sources, including oil shale and tar sands developments.
And in the presidential campaign, the Romney-Ryan ticket has embraced a platform that calls for expedited development of domestic oil resources as a vehicle for economic growth, as well as the best route to reducing dependence on foreign oil.
Together, these developments are conspiring to frame the discussion of policy as an "either-or" proposition, in which sides must be chosen in favor of either prioritizing renewable or nonrenewable sources. As a result, it is increasingly difficult to engage in an impassioned discussion of a comprehensive strategy that contemplates balance and coordination in addressing future energy needs.
The advocates on all sides have persuasive arguments. There are environmental concerns over expanded development of fossil fuels. But renewable energy carries its own cargo of environmental concerns, as witnessed in Monticello, where there are worries over the visual impact of giant wind turbines on the incomparable landscape.
On a national level, the current discussion rarely includes a sincere call for balance in energy policy. On the state level, in Utah, the concept of a balanced approach has been encouraged by a polka-dot array of resources that happen to include large fossil fuel reserves as well as geothermal formations and vast tracks of open lands where solar and wind power may be harnessed.
The state has in place an energy task force that describes its mission as an initiative to develop a "balanced use of fossil fuels and alternatives and renewable sources in a market-driven, cost-effective and environmentally responsible way."
Whether policies have indeed followed that principle is a matter of debate, but it is hard to quibble with the wisdom of the mission statement, or the essential importance of viewing energy policy in terms of the whole, as opposed to its separate parts.
The vast majority of our energy supplies come from fossil fuels, and the reality is that we will continue to rely on such sources for the foreseeable future. Policies that make new domestic reserves available shouldn't be cast aside as "old school," just as the potential for a boom in green energy shouldn't be written off as "pie in the sky."
As the political debate continues, we would be encouraged by a more strategic and open-minded approach to energy policy that does not limit itself to a discussion of the virtues of one form of energy in the exclusion of another.