Video footage of an oil platform that Hurricane Katrina blew into a bridge was symbolic of the world’s growing energy problem. It was on that same morning that the price for a barrel of oil exceeded $70, marking the highest oil price (adjusted for inflation) in decades. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the high price of oil is arguably a sign of a healthy and robust economy. Unlike past oil price spikes, this one is not being caused by a choke on supplies by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, but rather by increased demand caused by the industrialization of many formerly undeveloped countries.

Jessica Boullion

The fact that high oil prices reflect record levels of consumption should highlight the inherent problems of oil and the risks to the world of its finite supply. Now more then ever, we need to get serious about the future of energy. Several factors are combining to increase the severity of the energy situation and its effect on the environment. The most obvious of these factors is the inevitable exhaustion of oil reserves. Experts debate on when exactly this will happen, with estimates ranging from a decade to a half century. The development of newly industrialized countries like China and India is only speeding this process. The issue of oil has also proven to be divisive between the United States and China. The race to secure the remainder of the world’s known reserves is stressing the economic and political relationships between the two countries.

Every day it becomes more and more apparent that our dependence on fossil fuels is damaging the environment and that global warming is a fact rather than some liberal myth. Scientists believe that the world is currently warming at a rate of 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit per century. By comparison, the average world temperature has only increased by 5 or 6 degrees in the past 18,000 years – indicating that it probably isn’t part of the climate’s natural cycle.

It’s easy to dismiss a problem like global warming that may not completely manifest itself for decades or even centuries, but there are many more pressing environmental concerns. Recently-industrialized countries are literally choking to death on the enormous amounts of air pollution spewing from archaic factories.

While the administration has praised the recently passed energy bill, it does little in the way of funding renewable energy resources. In fact, even though oil companies are reaping remarkable profits from record oil prices, the new bill funnels $9 billion into the oil and gas industry by way of tax credits and incentives.

Instead, more money needs to be invested in renewable energy: solar, wind, hydrogen, photovoltaic cells and others. Of these, hydrogen is the most promising in terms of the amount of energy it has the potential to provide. Using electrolysis – the process by which hydrogen is separated from oxygen in water – hydrogen can be cleanly created with the only by-product being mundane oxygen gas. Researchers have been able to successfully use electrolysis for years, but the electricity needed to run electrolysis is still often generated from fossil fuels – which brings back the need for a clean energy source. Furthermore, the costs of electrolysis currently exceed the value of the energy derived from it. The roadblock now is making it efficient and cost effective for widespread use. The government needs to do more to help this process by awarding tax credits and incentives to those companies doing the most research and development in alternative forms of energy.

In the private sector, an infrastructure for large-scale research already exists. The oil companies clearly have an interest in the next generation of energy because they’ll be hard pressed for business when the oil wells dry up. British Petroleum has dropped its traditional name for simply BP and in its advertising, the more forward-looking name “Beyond Petroleum.”

However, shifting from an oil economy to a hydrogen economy will require massive government assistance and oversight. And it certainly won’t happen overnight. But a transition to a hydrogen economy is inevitable. Other energy alternatives simply don’t have the ability to provide the capacity of energy to totally replace oil, coal and natural gas. Hydrogen does. Three-fourths of the planet is covered in water. It will be difficult for politicians to wrench themselves away from the overpowering lobbying presence of oil interests, which is why having the oil companies initiating the change themselves is the most attractive path. Gas prices exceeding $3 a gallon at the pumps should be a loud wake-up call to Americans that its time for a change.


Slade can be reached at bslade@umich.edu.


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