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Energy, environment and war

Keywords: energy storage, externalities, Gulf War, Kyoto, Kuwait, Iraq, solar power, wind power.

PETER L. LEVIN Note 1

College of Engineering, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, U.S.A., pllevin@bu.edu

February 25, 1998: Hard on the heels of the Kyoto conference on global warming, the Iraqi tyrant who occupied Kuwait and threatened to gain control over 40% of the world's petroleum reserves, has revived the specter of war in the Middle East. The timing should draw our attention to the fact that the causes of the Gulf War and of climate change are one and the same.

Seven years ago, a coalition of nations assembled to throw the Iraqi invader out of Kuwait on the pretext of liberating a sovereign state. However, as U.S. Secretary of State James Baker explained, in a rare display of diplomatic candor, the real purpose of the intervention was to protect American jobs by ensuring America an unrestricted supply of oil.

Curiously, the objective of the Kyoto discussion was ostensibly to devise means of restricting the consumption of oil and other fossil fuels by America and the rest of the industrialized world. The conflict between the need to protect the global environment and the industrialized world's energy requirement is stark. Moreover, the conflict will remain a potential cause of war as long as the search for nonpolluting energy sources and means to conserve energy is stymied by chronic underfunding of, and societal nonchalance about, alternative energy resources.

Consuming less oil would obviate the Iraqi nemesis, at least in economic terms, and give natural systems a better chance to recycle anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. But this option receives little official attention in the face of Iraqi obstruction to UN weapons inspectors and China's energy ambitions. Some suggest that richer nations can help less developed countries reach a higher standard of living without making the same environmental blunders committed by North America and Western Europe. They expect that the best western technology for efficient energy use, technology that is rarely used in the West because oil is so cheap, can be licensed to the East. No doubt it can be, but only in the unlikely event that someone is willing to pay for it.

In 1996, the United States for the first time imported more than half of its oil supply: an amount equal to the cargo of the world's largest tanker, about 8 million barrels, delivered to American shores every day of the year. The U.S. spends $65 billion a year on imported energy. And this does not include any part of America's $265 billion defense budget. However, according to MIT engineering professor Jim Melcher, the real cost of a barrel of oil, taking into account the military cost of maintaining the security of foreign supplies, is closer to $100 than the current spot market price of $16.50.

Surprisingly, in view of the importance attached to the security of Middle East oil supplies, the U.S. receives only 5% of its energy from that region. That seems a ridiculously small portion of total energy consumption over which to wage war or around which to structure foreign policy. More rational, surely, would be to develop domestic substitutes for Middle East oil. Yet U.S. Federal Government expenditures deny this logic. All told, the U.S. will spend less than $2 billion in 1998 on energy-related research and development, but $35 billion on advanced weapons systems.

Pessimism about the potential of scientific and engineering research to solve America's energy supply needs is inconsistent with historical precedent. Not long after recovering from their emotional outburst against the Montreal Protocol, industry found safe and satisfactory substitutes for freon, the ozone-destroying refrigerant and aerosol propellant. Likewise, sulfur emission control technology has advanced to the point that sulfur emission permits, which the utilities feared would bankrupt them when emission caps were first introduced, now trade at a small fraction of their original cost. Many believe that non-fossil fuel energy alternatives, such as wind-farms and solar-based technologies, as well as energy conservation technologies, can readily be developed and would substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

But three things have to happen first. One is that the market has to account for environmental externalities, benefits we enjoy but do not pay for in proportion to our consumption of energy; for example carbon dioxide sequestration by forests and oceans, not to mention defense expenditures. By leveling the field, currently tilted by subsidies and disincenti.es, alternative energy sources will become more attractive. Another prerequisite is that regulatory strictures impeding input to the electrical grid need to be dismantled in order to allow independent producers to generate electricity without use of coal or artificially cheapened oil. Finally, society needs a better battery.

Indeed, energy storage is the key to breaking the dependence of the global economy on fossil fuels. Fossil resources are immensely popular because they are conveniently stored and transported to the point of consumption. Even electricity, which has a practical transmission range of 1000 km, cannot meet our need to consume energy untethered.

Hydrogen-based technologies appear to offer an attractive energy storage solution. Hydrogen can be generated electrolytically from water with solar-, wind- or nuclear-generated electricity or it can be extracted from natural gas, gasoline and other hydrocarbons. It burns cleanly, and can be converted electrochemically to electricity. The chemical process itself is especially exciting. Unlike coal, which can pass only one way throught the thermodynamic barrier, turning to fly-ash in the process, hydrogen moves back and forth through special membranes and catalysts, liberating or consuming energy depending on direction.

But regardless of whether hydrogen proves a satisfactory substitute for fossil fuels as an energy storage medium, our economic and political future is clearly contingent on finding something other than oil to burn. Responding to the essential truth of this proposition, whether out of concern for the environment, because of resource depletion, or from awell-founded fear of war, means reallocating both public and private resources toward the basic research needed to develop new energy technologies.

Reference

Melcher, J.R. 1991. America's Perestroika. Technology Review, Alumni Section (April), pp. 4-11.

1 The author is a former White House Fellow in the Office of Management and Budget and now Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies in Boston University's College of Engineering.


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