Oil and gas are the bridge to clean energy

Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2010

The catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico serves as a stark reminder that the United States needs a workable and comprehensive energy policy. As a nation, we have failed to address our unsustainable energy demands.

Alaska is - and in future decades will continue to be - an oil state. It produces about 8 percent of all oil coming from U.S. wells, second only to Texas. Even still, no other state has the potential to provide as much secure energy as Alaska, with its deep reserves of oil, natural gas and coal.

Alaska has flourished thanks to oil, and the state's natural gas supply looks to be the next big thing - assuming a pipeline is built. It's these two resources that can create an energy bridge to more sustainable models of power.

Our companies and people have proven their ingenuity time and again through renewable energy, whether it be hydro projects in Southeast Alaska, windmill farms in Kodiak, geothermal sources in the interior or even biomass facilities here in Juneau. Scientists have been exploring the potential for tidal power as well, and say that could be what removes many rural communities from expensive diesel power.

The core issue in Congress for the Alaska Congressional delegation is how Alaska's energy potential can be developed safely and sustainably. Failure to act in these circumstances will invariably relegate Alaska to colonial status. Without a thoughtful and comprehensive energy policy for the long term, Alaska's future will turn dim when the oil pipeline eventually dries up.

As the nation watches the immediate impact of the catastrophic oil disaster in the Gulf, it is worth reflecting on long-term oil metrics. Every day, America spends in excess of $1 billion to acquire energy from foreign sources. This level of consumption is unsustainable, yet the amount we burn increases annually.

The U.S. uses 25 percent of the world's oil, yet it only produces 3 percent of the global total. Whether the world has reached peak oil production is an open question and subject to debate by geologists and petroleum engineers. But even if we opened every square inch of the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling, we would still need to rely on imports to fulfill our oil needs.

Regardless of whether more oil will be discovered in the world, there is no debate that we have entered an era where all new oil is difficult and expensive to discover and produce. Shell has already invested more than $3 billion in exploration off Alaska's shores, and that's without a single well ever being built. The days of cheap energy from oil very well may be over. Oil is simply too scarce for it to be "cheap" energy ever again.

Alaska has a huge role to play in a new energy economy, but first the state must use its abundant oil revenues - and natural gas revenues if a pipeline is built - to promote sustainable energy production from lake-tap hydro, tidal, wind and bio-mass facilities. At the same time, promotion of efficiency is critical.

Addressing energy use by doing more with less is smart business, which is why the Alaska Legislature and many local communities have taken thoughtful steps to improve energy efficiency and address local energy problems.

Now it is time for Congress and the Obama Administration to move forward with a broad, comprehensive energy bill that places the United States and Alaska on a path leading to a sustainable energy future. It is critical for the nation to reduce its unhealthy and unsustainable dependency on foreign energy, and for American businesses to regain the lead in providing clean alternative energy technology.

It is vital that Congress act to ensure that Alaska's abundant energy resources - both fossil fuels and alternative sources of power - are encouraged. It will be Alaska's abundant but finite oil and gas resources that will help build a sustainable and clean energy future.

Southeast Alaska has embraced clean, renewable energy. Gustavus recently launched its Falls Creek Hydro project, which will serve about 400 people and reduce energy costs nearly two-thirds by taking the community off costly diesel power. Sealaska and the U.S. Coast Guard are investing in biomass heating and the airport and new swimming pool will use geothermal heating to reduce costs and increase efficiency. Many communities, Juneau being one of them, have benefited from renewable power for years.

Congress, and especially Alaska's Congressional delegation, must act now while the natural resources are still available to subsidize our energy future. Alaska and the rest of the United States need a comprehensive energy bill that encourages conservation, promotes new sustainable energy production and protects our state's critical role in providing oil and natural gas energy for as long as it lasts.

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