LONDON — Energy security and politics do not mix well. Energy security requires huge long-term investment, freedom from political interference and social tranquillity. Politicians live in the short term, love to interfere and tend to deliver nasty surprises that economic forecasters usually fail to foresee.
Four vivid examples of this conflict are currently bedeviling the British energy scene, where the government is trying to piece its ideas together in an increasingly dangerous world.
First, after years of self-sufficiency Britain is again becoming a major importer of oil and gas. The North Sea cornucopia is running down fast and the question now is how much reliance can be placed on safe delivery of these key fuels from distant and often politically shaky sources.
Second, there is the deeper question of how quickly dependence on both these fossil fuels can be reduced anyway, given that burning them creates large volumes of carbon dioxide, which is believed to be heating up the planet and melting the polar icecaps.
Third, there is the question of civil nuclear power, which emits no carbon dioxide but has all sorts of other snags. Should more nuclear power stations be built, how long would that take, can the poisonous radioactive waste be safely handled and what would be the real long-term cost of nuclear power?
Fourth, there are the apparently benign “renewables” such as wind and wave and solar power. But these require an expensive new infrastructure, can blight the landscape and will never produce enough “base-load” power to supply future electric needs.
So none of these options looks very appetizing, all involve risks and require enormous expenditure commitments and all face short-term political opposition, some of it insuperable. Energy planners tend to take refuge in vague assurances that the future must contain a bit of everything and that diversity of sources is the best protection. They also argue that big increases in energy efficiency will somehow reduce energy demand. But this overlooks some awkward facts about our future thirst for electricity and mobile power, and about the swelling needs of the developing world for cheap fuel sources, India and China being the leading examples.
Continuing to import oil, from whatever source, leaves consumers exposed to the huge price spikes. We are currently experiencing a particularly vicious one. The main suppliers are politically unreliable, especially big suppliers like Iran, and the terrorist threat to installations is always present, as the latest attempt to blow up a key Saudi Arabian oil plant reminds us. Some experts believe that world oil reserves are running out anyway, and that what remains will get increasingly expensive to recover.
Pipeline gas also looks tricky. Lately the British have found themselves at the wrong end of gas supplies from the Continent, where big French and German distributors give priority to their own domestic customers, starving the liberalized British market. Nervousness about Russian supplies to Western Europe, amounting to more than 40 percent of the total, has made the situation worse.
Anyway, carrying on burning these fossil fuels, at least in the conventional ways, means rising carbon emissions at a time when they are meant to be falling. The nuclear option is just as problematic. The industry has made great strides but popular feeling remains far from reassured. Building new stations would cause political uproar and anyway take years.
As for the green or “renewable” alternatives, they are bound to be marginal, high cost and, in the case of both wind farms and hydro-electric schemes, environmentally aggressive.
So is there a better way out of these energy dilemmas? There may be. The first modest step could be to shift generally from oil to gas, which burns somewhat cleaner than oil. And there is a massive amount of gas around, including vast fields in the Norwegian North Sea, the Arctic, the Arabian Gulf and Algeria.
The escape from gas pipeline dangers could come via importing from these areas more frozen, ship-transported gas (LNG) and gas converted to diesel. These fuels still emit carbon, but they are far cleaner and much more flexible than the pipeline stuff. Japan has been relying on LNG for decades, and this could now be the emerging pattern in Western Europe as well. Britain is rapidly building new terminals to receive LNG.
The escape from oil dependence could be further reinforced from a surprising source, namely coal. But how could that be? Surely coal is the ultimate dirty fossil fuel. But that was yesterday. Scientists now see ways of filtering out the poison and burning coal with zero carbon emissions. An alternative is to burn the coal underground, turning it to gas.
The beauty if this way forward is that there are massive coal deposits in Britain, in America and in China, all of which could ease the pressure on oil demand, offer safer homegrown sources of supply and deliver cheaper light and warmth than almost any of the alternatives.
So a surprising answer to the energy puzzle of the future could still rest on at least two of the three main fossil fuels — coal and gas — but both of them used in far more advanced, far cleaner and far more economical ways.
Combine this prospect with high-mileage hybrid vehicles, with much more efficient power grids, with low-energy domestic equipment and with general common sense in energy consumption and the puzzle begins to unravel. All that are needed are a few brave, long-term decisions by politicians. Is that too much to ask?
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