Foreign oil concerns could boost prospects for renewable energy

Oct 26, 2001 02:00 AM

Heightened concern about America's dependence on foreign oil could provide the strongest incentive yet for the nation to boost research in renewable energy and improve energy efficiency. Foreign countries produced more than half the oil America consumed last year, with Persian Gulf countries -- namely Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait -- producing close to a quarter of those imports.
Supporters of alternative energy say the Middle East's political uncertainty should prompt US policy makers to aggressively pursue home-grown energy sources such as fuel cells, biomass and wind and solar power. "The less encumbered our foreign policy is to economic interests, the better," said Hal Harvey, president of The Energy Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit that promotes renewable energy. "When you're sort of a drug addict trying to negotiate with a dealer, you don't have a lot of cards."

Even if Congress approves a contentious plan to open oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the United States cannot come close to gaining energy independence without renewable sources, said Sen. Harry Reid. Reid and Sen. Gordon Smith introduced legislation to renew the federal tax credit for wind power and expand it to include solar, biomass, geothermal and other renewable energies. He said concerns over national security eventually will draw more legislators from both parties toward expanding renewable energy.
Others, however, warn that proponents of increased domestic oil drilling continue to take a narrow view of the nation's energy policy. Rep. Mark Udall, a member of the House Resources and Science committees, said colleagues who see increased US drilling as the most important way to reduce dependence on foreign oil aren't budging.
"People have used what happened to reinforce their previous points of view," said Udall, who supports some additional drilling but opposes President George W. Bush's plan to tap the Arctic refuge. He said the United States must diversify its energy sources, saying the country will have no choice but to rethink its energy policy as world oil reserves shrink in the decades ahead.

The national-security argument to reducing fossil-fuel use applies mainly to petroleum and the motor vehicles that consume most of it. Automakers, government officials and environmentalists speak optimistically about the potential of fuel-cell technology, which they say eventually could replace gasoline to power motor vehicles.
The cells use energy generated when hydrogen, produced by anything from gasoline to electricity, bonds with oxygen to create water vapour. "We think it's a key competitive race among manufacturers: Who'll be first to produce large volumes of these vehicles?"
General Motors Corp. spokesman Dave Barthmuss said. "I don't know that we could move any faster." It's expected to take a decade or more to make fuel cells affordable, to set up fuelling stations and to ensure the vehicles safely handle the ultra light, flammable hydrogen they use. But in a sign the technology is progressing, GM and several other automakers will put 65 of their fuel-cell cars and other alternative-fuel vehicles to the test in the Michelin Challenge Bibendum.

California has been the source of other advances in alternative-fuel vehicles, thanks to efforts to clean up air that has ranked among the dirtiest in the nation. State and regional regulations and subsidies have helped create fleets of low-polluting cars, trucks and buses, including 40 electric postal vehicles unveiled in Los Angeles.
Bush administration officials said the president's national energy plan, which passed in the House but is languishing in the Senate, sets a course to increase the use of lower-polluting technologies to help reduce dependence on foreign oil. But they add that more domestic oil production is needed in the short term. They estimate more than 1 mm bpd -- about 20 % of current US production -- could be extracted from the Arctic preserve and advocate drilling on other federal lands.

Source: AP Worldstream
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