Energy Debate: Oil, Nuclear & the Alternatives

May 3, 2006

An overview of interlocking energy issues: The growing demand for oil and its effect on U.S. foreign policy; global warming and the need to reduce oil consumption; and the renewed push for nuclear energy and alternative energy sources.

The student reading below provides an overview of interlocking energy issues: The growing demand for oil and its effect on U.S. foreign policy; global warming and the need to reduce oil consumption; and the renewed push for nuclear energy and alternative energy sources.

Teachers may find useful the following earlier sets of materials: "Chernobyl and the Nuclear Power Controversy," "Oil and the Bell-Shaped Curve," and "The Unpleasant News About Global Warming."

 


Student Reading 1:

Energy Facts & Opinions

Facts

  • The U.S. consumes 25% of the world's oil, but only produces 3% of the world's oil supply.
  • The U.S. gets 60% of its oil from foreign nations that are plagued by political instability, insurgencies and/or corruption—all conditions that can lead to interruptions in the flow of oil.
  • More than two billion people live in China and India. Both these countries also have rapidly growing economies, and their demand for oil is growing exponentially.
  • U.S. military forces are stationed around the globe to protect overseas oil fields and supply routes. They guard pipelines carrying Iraqi oil to Turkey and help defend the Colombian pipeline linking interior oil fields with coastal refineries. American ships and planes patrol oil tanker routes in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and the Western Pacific Ocean.
  • Oil and other fossil fuel emissions are major causes of air pollution and global warming.

Presidential statements and actions

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter said: "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush (the current president's father) established U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia after Iraq invaded Kuwait and presented a threat to Saudi Arabia. Explaining why the U.S. must repel the Iraqi invasion, the president said, "Our nation now imports nearly half the oil it consumes and could face a major threat to its economic independence." The Gulf War followed. According to Osama bin Laden, American bases in Saudi Arabia, the sites of Islam's holiest places, are what made him an enemy of both his own country, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.

In March 2003 President George W. Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq. The first military objective was to get control of oil fields and refineries in the south of Iraq. When American troops took Baghdad, they immediately seized control of the Iraqi government's oil ministry. Iraq is second only to Saudi Arabia in its oil reserves.

Analysis

"Slowly, but surely, the U.S. military is being converted into a global oil-protection service."
—Michael Klare, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum

"We're running out of the capacity to produce surpluses of oil. Demand for crude is expected to rise much faster than new supplies. Developing nations, such as China and India, are glugging barrels at astounding rates. Meanwhile, most producer nations can't find enough new oil, or drill out more from their reserves, to replace what we're using up. Production from most of the large, older fields is in irreversible decline. In a few years these older fields "will start pumping at slowly diminishing rates." Then most of our oil will have to come from Persian Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia. But in "10 or 15 years, it too may not pump enough to meet increased demand. That puts the oil-dependent countries in a serious bind. We're all jockeying for control of oilfields, in a vast game that risks turning mean."
—Jane Bryant Quinn, Newsweek, 4/24/06

 

For discussion

1.What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why is there widespread agreement that the U.S. must reduce its dependence upon oil?

3. What problems can arise for the U.S. when it assigns its military forces to guard oil pipelines and oil supply routes around the globe?

4. What do you understand Quinn to mean by her last sentence?

 


Student Reading 2:

Nuclear power, drilling in the Gulf, and alternative energies

Gas prices are $3 a gallon and rising. Oil prices have increased by about 24% in the past year. Last winter most American families experienced sharply higher heating costs. Around the world, demands for oil rise and prices rise, but not supplies. Meanwhile, emissions from cars, power plants, and other industrial sources are major contributors to global warming. Among a multitude of signs are melting glaciers and the polar ice caps. (See www.nrdc.org/global)

In his 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush warned that we are "addicted to oil." He proposed an "Advanced Energy Initiative" to meet the need for alternative fuels that includes "clean and safe nuclear technology," solar and wind energy, and biofuels (such as corn-based ethanol).

Nuclear Energy

The president's proposal for additional nuclear plants includes "a package of financial incentives [including federal 'risk insurance'] intended to reduce the risk of an investment in a new nuclear plant." His Global Nuclear Energy Project (GNEP) would include "work with France, the UK, Japan, and Russia to develop and deploy innovative, advanced reactors and new methods to recycle spent fuel."

Through GNEP's technological advancements, Bush said he anticipates a great reduction in the toxicity of nuclear waste requiring permanent disposal. He underlined the urgency of opening the nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. (See www.whitehouse.gov and click on "energy" for a detailed discussion of the president's plans.)

The Sierra Club's Executive Director, Carl Pope, opposed the nuclear proposal: "Nuclear power...produces highly radioactive waste, provides too many opportunities for accidents and terrorist attacks and won't do the job of curbing global warming." (www.sierraclub.org, 1/31/06) Greenpeace argues that tax breaks and other federal and state subsidies for nuclear power mean less money for research and development of renewable sources of energy. (www.greenpeace.org) The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states: "In its present state, the nuclear power industry suffers from too many security, safety and environmental exposure problems, not to mention excessive costs, to be a viable energy source." NRDC recommends more practical and economic alternatives to curbing global warming pollution. (www.nrdc.org)

Biofuels and other alternatives

The Bush administration proposes to spend $150 million for research on biofuels like those derived from corn, wood chips, prairie grass, and animal fats. An additional $290 million is earmarked for research on hydrogen and fuel cells.

Critics say this sum is quite small. For comparative purposes: The U.S. spends $150 million a day on the Iraq war and many tens of billions of dollars yearly for its military to protect oilfields and oil supply routes.

Drilling in the Gulf

The president's proposed budget provides money for research and development of alternative fuels but it is dwarfed by $15 billion in subsidies for oil and gas companies. ( New York Times , 4/21/06). His budget cuts $113 million from Department of Energy conservation programs. It increases drilling for oil and gas on public land and proposes drilling 100 miles off the coast of Pensacola, Florida in the Gulf of Mexico.

Estimates are that the two-million-acre area of the Gulf of Mexico under consideration contains nearly half a billion barrels of oil (a barrel=42 gallons) and three trillion cubic feet of natural gas. According to the New York Times (4/9/06) , this is "enough to run roughly a million vehicles and heat more than half a million homes for about 15 years... [which] could bring short-term relief to the nation's energy needs and, perhaps, lower fuel costs for consumers." Lawmakers are divided on the Gulf plan.

In 1981 Congress passed the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Moratorium, which prevents companies from leasing coastal waters to extract fossil fuels. Federal statistics show that oil drilling approved before the moratorium has dumped three million gallons of oil into coastal waters since 1980. ( Tallahassee Democrat, www.Tallahassee.com, 4/7/06) However, the western and central waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which are not included in this ban, "produce nearly a third of the nation's oil and more than a fifth of its natural gas." ( New York Times , 4/9/06)

Environmental groups, Florida tourist industry leaders, and local fishers oppose changes in the OCS Moratorium because of their environmental impact. Oil spills can mar beaches that bring tourists to Florida and harm or even destroy marine life. Environmental groups also emphasize the relatively short-term gain of further drilling in the Gulf and the likelihood of its prolonging our oil addiction.

The NRDC also argues that the Gulf project diverts attention from the potential long-term gain of deriving more energy from renewable sources of energy to limit global warming and warns of the political clout wielded by oil, gas, and mining companies. (www.nrdc.org)

Beyond Oil

President Bush now recognizes the overwhelming consensus among scientists that human activities—specifically, burning fossil fuels—is a principal cause of global warming. To limit their use, 160 nations signed on to the Kyoto Protocol. But the president withdrew U.S. participation in the Kyoto accord because in his view it was unfair to industrialized nations. He has not been willing to call for more than voluntary industrial action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The most recent figures show that the U.S. emitted more greenhouse gas in 2004 than at any other time in history, the equivalent of more than 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide. The U.S. is responsible for about 25% of global emissions.

Critics say that Bush's energy policy is driven by his close links with the oil and gas industries. One of the first acts of the newly-elected President Bush in 2001 was to name Vice President Cheney to head up a task force to develop energy policy. Top energy executives from oil, gas, and other energy companies were his consultants and played a major role in developing policies from which they and their companies have profited. Last year energy companies contributed nearly $2 million to the Republican Party.

Environmental groups like the NRDC, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace say the U.S. needs to radically change its energy policies by focusing on 1) developing renewable, non-polluting energy sources, including not only solar and wind, but also wave power, geothermal energy, and biomass, and 2) increasing our energy efficiency—for example, requiring automobile manufacturers to make significant improvements in the fuel efficiency of new cars and trucks. (The Bush administration is opposed to this.)

Such plans, says the NRDC, would "enhance our national security, reduce air and water pollution, curb global warming, create jobs, and protect wild lands and wild life." (www.nrdc.org)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How and why do the president and leading environmental groups disagree about nuclear power?

3. On what energy issues do they agree?

4. If you had a vote on the proposal for further drilling in the Gulf, how would you vote and why?

5. What do you understand President Bush's opinion to be on global warming? How do you explain it? Why is there disagreement with him?

 


For Further Inquiry

1. What are the major pros and cons of nuclear power? On balance, what is your view?

2. There is no controversy over climate change/global warming among scientists. What is a sampling of their proposals to reduce the severity of what is already occurring?

3. What proposals are there for a specific standard of fuel efficiency for cars and trucks? Select one for closer study. What impact would it have on vehicle makers? What impact have fuel efficiency standards had on them in the past?

4. Study the progress of the Gulf drilling proposal through Congress. What do you learn about the nature of the legislative process and the arguments pro and con?

 


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org