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The Salty Taste of Energy Independence

Innovation, and not just drilling the same well deeper, could make energy in America as common, as, well, salt.

Barack Obama made good this week on his promise to Republicans to remain open-minded about offshore drilling. The United States, he announced, will end a moratorium on the practice, opening up stretches along the East Coast, in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaskan coast to oil and gas exploration.

It was as much a political move as anything else — one designed to deflate the Republican rallying cry of "drill, baby, drill!" while also improving the chances of a bipartisan energy bill in the Senate this year.

Offshore drilling will not, of course, solve the problem of energy independence, no more so than it will depress the price of gas at the pump this summer. New geological surveys and environmental impact studies will take years. Even then, we don't have that much of the stuff: As realists frequently interject, the U.S. has 2 percent of the world's oil reserves, but we consume 20 percent of the world's supply.

The actual answer to energy security involves a vision so expansive that midterm-to-midterm American politics may be uniquely incapable of grasping it.

"If you look at the last hundred years of innovation, going from artificial fertilizers, to airplanes, to nuclear energy, all the way down to the Internet, all of this innovation, imagine this happening in the next 20 years," said Arun Majumdar, director of the Department of Energy's new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (a friendlier, greener version of DARPA). "That's the scale and pace that we need."

Lisa Margonelli, who shared a panel with Majumdar at an event sponsored by Arizona State University at the National Press Club, called what we need "the industrial revolution in triple-time."

We don't need an extensive oil rig mobilization at sea for a small and far-off quantity of oil (although Obama may need to say that to get moderate Democrats and Republicans on board with his next big domestic policy agenda). We need: solar panels that spray on, sugar that turns into fuel and biomass that becomes ethanol, cars that plug into smart grids that communicate real-time pricing from utilities using carbon sequestration, and a whole bunch of other things no one has thought of yet - and all of it to scale.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

A useful analogy, suggested Sunil Paul, who corrals venture capital for clean-energy projects, is salt. The one-time strategic commodity was fundamental to human energy — more specifically, the energy we get from food — when it was the only way to preserve it.

"The reason why today salt is not a strategic commodity, why we don't care who has the power over salt, why we don't fight wars over it, is not because a substitute for salt was found," Paul said. "It's not because we mine more salt in the United States. It's because we discovered an alternative to that energy preservation."

Primarily, refrigeration. Fossil fuels, like salt once did, have a total monopoly on the market (whether we get them from Saudi Arabia or drill them off our own coast).

"When you want to move a car, want to move a truck, want to move a tank, want to move an airplane, there's only one way to do that," Paul said. "Get stuff out of the ground."

The obstacle to realizing an alternative vision — shared by progressive industry execs, researchers and a new generation of students who want degrees in "sustainability" — is, naturally, in Washington. We need innovation not just in science and technology, but also in policy and financing.

Jim Rogers, a clean-energy crusader who ironically runs one of the nation's largest coal-powered utilities, says he needs a "roadmap:" a price on carbon and a cap on emissions that would mandate outcomes without dictating to industry how to get there.

That is, to come full circle and what Obama is getting at as well, if concessions like offshore drilling could just bring enough votes on board. As the New America Foundation's Margonelli warned: "Political time is very different from energy time."

The latter is measured in decades, in the lifespan of a coal plant, or the time it takes to push an innovation through research and development, to commercialization, to scale. There's no shorter measure of time, on the other hand, than from right now to the next election.

If Obama doesn't get the votes for an energy bill, he'll have conceded a key priority of environmentalists without doing much to jumpstart the real story: the industrial revolution in triple-time.

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