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But the big energy producers may not be as neatly in lockstep with the economy as they imply. Although both energy consumption and the gross national product have leveled off recently, there may or may not be a cause-and-effect relationship. As environmentalists like to point out, during the five-year period starting in 1973, energy use increased by only 5% a year while the GNP grew, after adjustment for inflation, by 12% a year. And this doesn't consider the economic slack that might have been taken up by large-scale production of solar equipment. Because the distribution of renewable energy would generally be less centralized, oil companies and utilities may well have something to lose by switching to renewables; the U.S. as a whole, environmentalists argue, doesn't.
In fact, environmentalists insist, conventional energy poses very nearly as many economic problems as environmental ones. In the case of domestic oil, the U.S. is putting its faith in a dwindling geologic commodity being sold off in what amounts to a fabulously lucrative liquidation sale. In nuclear power, the country is relying on an energy source that has turned out to be far more expensive than promised, is partly financed by Washington—through subsidies for uranium production and government-approved limits on insurer liability for nuclear accidents—and, in the event of another Three Mile Island, would probably be shut down by public demand, leaving the U.S. in the lurch. With synthetic fuels, the country is gambling on processes that are technologically risky and will require massive government spending. That leaves coal, which is far cheaper to burn than oil but will require, in many cases, the costly conversion of oil-burning plants. To encourage such conversion, the Carter Administration has proposed generous, and possibly inflationary, federal subsidies.
All parties to the energy debate agree that renewables will take on far greater importance during the coming "postpetroleum" age. As John W. Hanley, president and board chairman of Monsanto Company, who is no flower child, notes, "We have tremendous scientific capabilities for developing new energy sources. Windmills for electrical generation and solar energy for heat are both feasible technologies." Indeed, there is already a mini-boom in solar installations for home heating, although nothing seems feasible now for industrial heating.
But the timetable for phasing in renewables is subject to fierce debate. President Carter estimates that renewables, including hydroelectric power, now provide 7% of U.S. energy and says that this figure can reach 20% by 2000. Assuming an increase in existing tax credits for geothermal, wind-driven power and solar-heating systems, and assuming increased conservation, Carter's goal would appear to be attainable.
Environmentalists argue, however, that renewables can satisfy 30% or even more of America's energy needs by 2000. This highly optimistic projection may depend at least partly on a breakthrough in solar energy for producing electricity, which poses a Catch 22 predicament: because its cost is at the moment prohibitive, the government has been reluctant to invest heavily in the development of solar electricity. Yet it is just such government development that might bring down the cost to the point where large-scale solar electricity would be practicable. In the absence of vigorous action by Washington, there are a number of private companies, including Texas Instruments, IBM and Motorola, engaged in solar electricity research. It is possible that one or more of them, spurred by the prospect of a huge payoff, might achieve the necessary breakthrough.
Until then, however, the surest bet for easing both the energy crisis and the strain on the environment remains conservation. It is in recognition of this that the Carter Administration has imposed restrictions on heating and cooling buildings and tougher standards for automobiles. The President also proposed more money for mass transit and pushed for tax credits for the installation of home insulation. But the Administration has been cool to imposing higher gasoline taxes, which could dampen consumption, and both the White House and Congress often seem more interested in increasing production than conservation. "We're into a John Wayne mode," says Massachusetts Senator Paul E. Tsongas. "Decentralized, dull, nitty-gritty programs that will save us a lot of oil are not regarded as dramatic enough."
With the public already reeling because of soaring fuel costs, political opposition to increased gasoline taxes is understandable. But resistance to higher fuel prices, whatever form the increases take, is wishful thinking. Prices have risen largely for the classic reason that conventional energy is scarce, demand high. Although, in truth, environmentalists are not entirely unhappy about this—energy, they feel, should bear a high price because it exacts a high price—efforts to make environmentalists the scapegoats won't alter the unpleasant realities. Neither, for that matter, will efforts to make whipping boys out of the oil companies. What will change the situation is the realization that with Americans comprising 5% of the world's population but consuming 30% of its energy, the country could use far less conventional fuel without appreciably lowering its standard of living. Sweden and West Germany both enjoy standards of living comparable to that of the U.S. while consuming barely half the energy per capita.
While conservation is often discussed in terms of public "sacrifice," many environmentalists shun the word. They agree with John P. Holdren, professor of energy and resources at the University of California and a strong advocate of renewable energy, who says, "I'd rather think in terms of 'efficiency' than 'sacrifice.' There are tremendous opportunities for providing the same goods and services while using less energy. For example, it's possible for air conditioners and refrigerators to deliver the same cool for one third of the energy they now use."
Encouragingly, Americans may be more receptive to conservation than their leaders believe, an inclination that could, by itself, assure a more benign energy mix and a cleaner environment. In growing numbers, they are saving fuel by turning off lights, insulating their homes and taking their foot off the gas pedal. Despite continued population growth, demand for electricity has softened to the point that some utilities have scrapped plans both for nuclear and coal-burning plants. Similarly, consumption of all petroleum products in the U.S. declined by 2% in 1979 and of gasoline by even more—5%. So great is the call for fuel-efficient cars that the sagging auto industry is now talking about going beyond federal gas-mileage standards—and hoping for an eventual upsurge in profits in the process. The Sierra Club's McCloskey believes that the impetus to save energy, until now dictated mainly by pocketbook considerations, will grow once people fully grasp that energy conserved is energy not taken out of the hide of the environment. "People don't want to freeze in the dark," McCloskey says ominously. "Well, they don't want to choke on smog, either."
Recent events lend urgency to such forebodings of doom. Three Mile Island. The Gulf of Mexico oil blowout. The evacuation of 250,000 Canadians because of a chlorine spill. Discovery of toxic wastes in the Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y. On top of these incidents, each the most serious of its kind in history, came last September's smog siege in Los Angeles, the city's worst in nearly 25 years. It was a mocking coincidence that even as Earth Day '80 was being observed last week, fires at chemical-storage facilities sent 40 people to hospitals in Elizabeth, N.J.—and for a time menaced part of New York City—and injured 29 people and forced the evacuation of 300 residents of an Indian reservation in Fort Hall, Idaho. Such occurrences signal an environment under strain, a situation prompting Governor Lamm, for all his misgivings about environmental intransigence, to warn, "As a society we're careening recklessly into the future. I think we're going to have more Love Canals and more carbon dioxide buildup, and I'm afraid there will be famine in India. When the history of these times is written, I believe the environmentalists will be shown to have raised the right issues."