Letters: Energy independence is a disaster in the making
Find out what FORTUNE readers had to say in response.
By Justin Fox, FORTUNE editor-at-large

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - There's a belief in journalism that when you make both sides mad, you must have done something right. So I guess I can take some solace in being cursed as both a right-wing oil-company shill and a tax-and-spend liberal.

But not too much solace, because most of the legions of people who e-mailed me about my article, Energy independence is a disaster in the making, entirely missed what I thought was the point. I can blame some of that on readers who got so angry at the first paragraph that they never really digested the rest (how exactly does advocating a doubling of gas taxes qualify me as an oil-company shill?), but the fault was obviously chiefly mine.

Does anyone out there believe in globalization?
The dispute over whether a Dubai company should be able to operate U.S. ports is only the tip of the (xenophobic) iceberg. (Read the column)

The people at CNNMoney.com ask us to keep these pieces we magazine writers produce for them to 700 words or less. That's because people reading stuff on the Web generally don't get farther than that. (If you want to see me go on and on about the same subject, go right here.)

When you write a 700-word essay (I actually got away with 784), you have to leave a lot of stuff out. I consciously left out important topics like peak oil, nuclear power, the cost of our military endeavors in the Middle East, and the economics of converting turkey dung into diesel fuel. (Actually, I didn't know about that last one until a reader alerted me.)

What I unconsciously and mistakenly left out, though, was a clearer statement of just which side I'm on here. I want most of the same things that the people who call for "energy independence" want -- less dependence on oil, less pollution, more research into alternative fuels, fewer Hummers, fewer American soldiers killed, etc. My point is simply that I think "energy independence" is the wrong rallying cry, because an energy policy geared solely toward keeping out foreign oil and natural gas would be a big mess.

A lot of readers who did get this point argued that a closed-border policy wasn't what they understood "energy independence" to mean, and I was simply setting up a straw man. Fair enough. Maybe I'm being just like those people who argue that Tom Friedman gets it all wrong in "The World is Flat" because the world isn't really flat. (There are mountains! There are valleys! And what about those sinkholes in Florida!?!)

But I think there's more to it than that, chiefly because so many of the laws passed and subsidies created by the U.S. Congress over the past three decades in the name of "energy independence" have been pork-barrel projects that have benefited the owners of domestic coal mines, oil rigs and corn farms at the expense of real progress toward a cleaner, more reliable energy future.

I also think a lot of the people calling for "energy independence" have a misguided idea that after it's achieved, we can simply shut out the problems of the rest of the world.

It doesn't work that way. Coming up with an eventual replacement for the oil economy is something the U.S. should be doing in conjunction with the other energy-importing nations, not in isolation or in opposition.

-- Justin Fox, FORTUNE editor-at-large

Letters

A sure sign of a doomed argument is one that uses an outlandish "what if" to so exaggerate the scenario being debated that only an idiot could disagree. And while you acknowledge (half way through your op ed) that a tariff of $250 a barrel on oil is ridiculous, yet it's precisely the state of panic such an idea generates that is required to take the rest of your piece seriously.

Obviously -- obviously -- no serious-minded person would entertain a tariff of that magnitude. So why introduce it in your argument? The answer is, because becoming less dependent on foreign oil, funding R&D for cleaner, less expensive energy sources is scary because its unknown. And things that are unknown and scary are bad for markets. Those are interesting, but ultimately really awful reasons not to push ahead.

The simple, facts are A) We're ruining the environment. B) Even if we wanted to keep partying on oil, oil is going to run out. But before it does that, it's going to get really really expensive. Talk about insecurity. And C), the security of the United States, economic and otherwise, ought to be based on markets in which we choose to engage, not those to which we are held hostage. The aspect of the United States's power which has eroded is its moral authority. And a good way to regain that is to make policy that is motivated by doing the right thing, rather than by fear, desperation and greed.

So make cogent arguments, but please refrain from hype.

-- E.S.

***

I read your article about America's dependence on foreign oil but you failed to mention the only source of energy that would solve all of our issues: Nuclear power.

If the US could put its fears aside about nuclear power and focus on making sure the new technologies are safe and efficient, we could build four plants in every state. That would not only spur economic growth for our country but it would increase the percentage of electricity provided by a safe, clean, and cheap source of energy thus effectively removing our reliance on fossil fuels.

In addition, new research could help develop reactors that safely and cheaply produce hydrogen. This would develop the new hydrogen economy to drive our cars and trucks moving the nation away from its dependence on gas.

Nuclear power is the only viable, cheap and proven source of energy that could really help us become "energy independent!"

-- A. Z.

***

I agree with your economics, but what is a bigger disaster is our adjustment to a standard of living sustainable only by destroying the environment and our resources, or by the lives of soldiers lost -- all so we can drive SUVs and have oversized houses.

My son went off to Iraq I and was able to retire before Iraq II. His and his Marine comrades' opinions were they were going to fight for Bush, the oil companies and SUV owners. It is not energy independence we need but to be able to live without a cost in human blood.

Isn't there a perspective in which we could appropriately see ourselves burning the blood of our children in our cars and oversized homes rather than just oil? If we argue with economic equations, let us put in all the variables. Or do we leave out the embarrassing ones in this country?

I will look forward to your editorial on this aspect of energy expenditures. You raised an important issue. Now that you are cooking you have stirred up some heat. The easy way out would be to not take human beings into account -- business doesn't these days. What about you?

-- B.B.

***

It's people like you that cloud the issue of energy use and its ramifications with economic repercussions and politics. Do you think people will care about the economy if mankind is on the verge of extinction (a little extreme) or 75 percent of the state of Florida is submerged by the end of this century (very likely)? Do you think people will care about mid-east oil dependence when Europe suffers a mini ice age based on the shut-down of the North Atlantic current (quite possible)?

This crux of this issue isn't about "energy independence", it's about ensuring that our children and grandchildren will have a habitable planet to live on.

Honestly, what's more important, loss of jobs and increased gasoline prices, or loss of lives and the continued incidence of extreme weather? A tax on gasoline to deter gluttonous use of fuel won't solve this problem, it will only delay its onset.

Eventually, we (and I mean we as the human race, not just Americans) are going to have to stop polluting and spewing god-knows-what into the air if we want to continue to inhabit the planet Earth. Maybe the powers-that-be at FORTUNE are more concerned with dollars and cents, but you people are missing the big picture. Everybody loses if we continue along this path -- even rich people.

-- M.J.

***

I believe your article, "Energy independence is a disaster in the making," to be irresponsible. While not essentially inaccurate, your article is an example of the lopsided capitalism that has been responsible for half of the problems looming on our society's horizon.

The article's logic smells of Bush and Cheney, using "what's good for the economy (now) is good for us later." Less dependence on oil will certainly hurt and it is all of our jobs to accept that and accommodate it in the best way possible.

But it will hurt none-the-less because we are reaping what we have sown over the past many decades, building an economy (not just transportation and heating, but plastics, etc) on cheap oil.

By following your implied advice ("why sentence ourselves to more expensive energy"), we sentence ourselves (certainly our children) to a much more difficult task later on that is not just one of economic strife, but social strife much more significant than the loss of US economic supremacy.

In the future, please advocate long-term solutions, not ones that only protect the economic status quo.

-- P.N.

***

Shouldn't any discussion of the cost of oil include the cost of securing it, which is currently bankrupting our country? Were it not for Middle Eastern oil we wouldn't have Osama, Iraq, etc.

-- S. D.

***

I think you are missing some fundamentals in your argument:

"The simplest way to get the most out of what we spend on energy is to keep energy costs cheap, and the best way to do that is to take full advantage of global energy markets."

Umm, that was the whole point of the president's speech. Global Energy Markets are the problem. With energy prices fluctuating, it is an uncontrollable cost and difficult to budget for. By going towards a renewable resource (biodiesel, E85, etc.) we would be helping the American economy and reducing a trade deficit. Brazil is a good example of this.

Also, I believe the President is pushing for cleaner coal solutions that are available with current technology. The nuclear power industry is also an alternative to many current fossil fuel power plants.

-- J. C.

***

Middle-East oil producers don't like to hear the U.S. talk of energy independence. Bush again showed his brilliance by threatening Arab countries. We are one of their biggest customers. How will lowering prices help them without their largest customer? The Arab ruling class doesn't want us to go away, and the threat is a useful incentive we can use to persuade them to get their act together.

With new clean burning technology, pollution from coal is no longer a serious issue. American capitalism has used environmental regulations (read, tax incentives) to create new scrubber technologies. There are companies who've built waste-stack scrubbers that clean the exhaust and create Gypsum as a by-product as well. All on yours and my tax dollars.

Which brings about the real issue. Taxes on energy, which is the REAL thrust behind your story, isn't it. You liberals just LOVE taxes. My points are: the threat of energy independence is a useful tool, and enviro-wackiness is sooo last century.

-- C. P.

***

I enjoyed your article. Perhaps you missed the point of energy independence, though. Personally, I'm not in favor of any immediate changes such as the tariffs you mentioned. Clearly that would do more damage than good.

What I am in favor of is spending money now on R&D to discover new sources of energy that are environmentally friendly, specifically, hydrogen-based energy. If I understand the concept correctly, Hydrogen is the only input, and water and energy are the only outputs.

The possibilities of this type of energy are unbelievable, especially since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. I understand that this would require a complete and rampant restructuring of all machinery and fueling stations, and that this would take a long time to complete even once the technology was available.

Also, many of the companies that "run" the world economy would do anything they could to stop this from happening. For the good of mankind, though, I don't see how we can't strive to make this possible.

-- A.W.

***

I just read your article, and your statement "The simplest way to get the most out of what we spend on energy is to keep energy costs cheap, and the best way to do that is to take full advantage of global energy markets." is simply not true.

NOT ONCE in your article do you mention conservation. The federal government has few incentives to reduce our consumption of energy, however we can reduce our needs for energy considerably, in an economic way, if an incentive existed. More energy efficient houses is one way, and you don't even discuss that anywhere in your article.

-- J. G..

***

I think that you make an interesting and valid point, however, "market forces" are not a panacea. Too many times I hear "let the market solve it." Unfortunately, if that ever happens, it is too little too late.

We are plundering a non-renewable resource that is much more valuable as a resource to make plastics and other polymers. Burn it until it's gone, THEN look at switching to more ecofriendly and renewable resources? Who wouldn't pursue the cheapest, easiest strategy unless regulated to do otherwise?

It's not competitive to pursue harder, more expensive energy alternatives until economies of scale render them MORE affordable. Why *waste* money on these alternatives as certain energy companies insist, when they are not practical? We used to use whale oil for lamps until someone built up the infrastructure to use petroleum...

Consumer choice rules all? Why shouldn't people be able to buy and drive H3s to their hearts' content? For the same damn reason that we don't allow people to speed, litter, beat their dogs, pee in public, etc.: Because it's antisocial.

We regulate because we are (I like to believe) an advanced society. If you look at Europe, their average MPG is approximately 30. With a CAFE of 30 mpg, we would be Middle East energy independent. We could then get all of our oil from other petroterrorist states like Nigeria and Venezuela.

And, by the way, I'm an active duty soldier, and I resent people I know being in harm's way so that people here can drive to work in their two-and-a-half-ton SUVs getting 15 mpg.

-- D. T.

__________________________

Letters have been edited for spelling and clarity. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.