A natural gas pipeline sounds like a logical way to address our nation's growing demand for energy. With 35 trillion cubic feet of gas lying under the North Slope, Gov. Sarah Palin's plan to tap into it hardly seems debatable. But our increasing dependence on foreign imports for energy is just the symptom of a much larger problem.
In his 2006 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush declared, "America is addicted to oil." And he was right. The United States is only 5 percent of the world's population and yet we consume more than 25 percent of its energy. That is three times more than China, the world's largest country and second leading energy consumer. We drive cars that average 21 miles per gallon (whereas the 1908 Ford Model T got 25 mpg), we commute 32 miles a day and we heat 2,000-square-foot homes. Let's face it, we are energy hogs. So yes, building a natural gas pipeline makes sense. But it does not fix our addiction - it prolongs it.
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Sure, 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas sounds like a lot, but it is just a trickle in the world's energy supply - barely enough to supply our country's demands for 500 days. But regardless of how much gas there is and how long it will last, there is a more pressing issue at hand. It is an often overlooked and forgotten reality. Simply put, all these fossil fuels are finite. There is not a limitless supply of oil, gas or coal.
Eventually, oil production will reach a peak, which will be followed by a quick and steady decline in its availability. This is known as "peak oil."
In 1999, Dick Cheney, then CEO of Halliburton, said, "There will be an average of 2 percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a 3 percent natural decline in production ... by 2010 we will need an additional 50 million barrels a day." The key word here is "conservatively."
Andrew Gould, CEO of Schlumberger, a leading oil field service provider, says, "An overall (decline) of 8 percent is not an unreasonable assumption." The supply and demand imbalance created by peak oil would create permanent and detrimental disturbances to the global economy.
A U.S. Department of Energy report acknowledging peak oil states, "The world has never faced a problem like this ... (it) will be pervasive and will not be temporary."
When will peak oil occur? The conservative estimate is around 2015, while the more liberal analyses say it has already passed. In either case, the economic upheaval and social unrest that results will be witnessed within our lifetime.
Though the reality of peak oil may be inevitable, its consequences are not. Peak oil task forces are already established in many cities across the nation, including: Portland, Ore.; Bloomington, Ind.; and Franklin, N.Y. And recently, the Haines Borough Assembly formed the Haines Energy Security Task Force. With some foresight and proper planning, Alaska can develop the infrastructure to endure the consequences of peak oil.
Developing our solar, wind, and geothermal resources to a marketable level would help reduce the fallout from peak oil. There is also the potential to harness tidal energy. In a report on tidal energy feasibility, the Electric Power Research Institute stated that "Icy Strait show(s) a massive energy potential, more that enough to meet the region's energy needs and enough to allow export of valuable green energy to Canada and the Pacific Northwest." But converting to renewable fuels is not a silver bullet.
The majority of U.S. energy consumption is used for transportation - something Southeast Alaska depends on heavily. As energy supplies dwindle, barge traffic will decrease and its cost will increase. The price of goods and services will surge. In order to survive economically, Southeast Alaska will need to become a self-sufficient community.
A gas pipeline may boost our economy and is likely worth building, but it does not resolve the more pressing issue of peak oil. Alaska needs a leader brave enough to restructure our energy supply. We need someone to lead us to sustainability. Are there any pioneers left in the Last Frontier?
Steve Vick is a freelance writer and photographer living in Haines.