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Who’s Defining the Energy Debate

As part of the documentary I’m making about nuclear power, I’ve been looking into why it is that after nearly 40 years of recognizing the need to revolutionize the way in which we produce and consume energy, very little has actually been done in the way of fundamental change.  I suppose it should come as no surprise that the biggest impediment lies with those with the greatest vested interest in maintaining our addiction to fossil fuels: the fossil fuel industries.

While this observation might seem obvious, the degree to which the oil, gas and coal industries have helped to shape and define the terms of our energy debate, even within the environmental movement itself, has come as a bit of a shock.  Many oil and gas companies are touting renewable energy and conservation. A case in point is the banner above this very blog in which Shell Oil touts energy conservation.  A noble cause that I agree we should all embrace, and no doubt some of Shell’s senior executives do too.   A casual visitor to this website will likely leave with a favorable impression of Shell Oil as a company that is leading the way to transition away from fossil fuels through conservation and renewable energy.

Shell is just one of several oil and gas companies launching lavish green campaigns, trying to convince us they’re taking care of our energy problems.  We could laugh this off as mere green-washing and delude ourselves into believing that we environmentalists are the real winners in this arrangement, promoting our vision of a clean energy future on their dime.   But, historically, these campaigns have had a far more profound impact.

In the course of our research we’ve followed this trail dating back to the 1970’s of how fossil fuel companies have promoted wind, solar and conservation, and successfully positioned natural gas as a clean energy source, while encouraging, and in some cases (which we will reveal in our film) financing opposition to nuclear power, the only proven non CO2 emitting power source that has any real potential to practically eliminate the need for fossil fuels altogether.  While these companies have sought to burnish their green credentials with one hand, they have at the same time been active in financing efforts to create doubt about the science of climate change with the other. Meanwhile, their own scientists have long since concluded that climate change is in fact a very real problem that is being brought on by burning fossil fuels.

One counter-intuitive effect: a surprising number of nuclear scientists whom I’ve spoken to are climate change skeptics, even though climate change is also probably the best argument for expanding nuclear power.   Natural allies in the energy debate are now enemies in the political context, and this polarization paralyzes  every effort to change course.  This age-old tactic of divide and conquer seems to be playing itself out to the benefit of the status quo.  Since this tactic began back in the 1970’s, solar power has cut into just 0.1% of America’s electricity market, wind about 0.7%.   The fossil fuel industries have good reason not to regard these energy technologies as an existential threat.   Extraordinary conservation efforts in California have succeeded wonderfully in stabilizing the per capita growth in electrical energy demand, but their parallel push to rely increasingly on renewable energy rather than nuclear power has actually made the state even more dependent than ever on fossil fuels.

Turn on the TV on any given night and you’ll see oil company commercials showing beautiful images of green pastures with a sprinkling of shiny white wind turbines spinning quietly in the setting sun, leaving the subtle impression that A. renewable energy is ramping up to solve the energy/climate crisis, and B. these large energy corporations are working hard at making the renewable energy utopia depicted in the commercials into a reality.   ‘Nothing to worry about, we’re on it’ seems to be the message.

Meanwhile, the energy business goes on as usual, the planet gets warmer, the future for our children grows increasingly bleak, our national security is diminished and our 21st Century economy continues to rely on a dwindling and increasingly perilous 19th century energy source.

To quote David MacKay, the famed British environmentalist and renewable energy expert, when asked why he now believes in nuclear power, responded, “I don’t believe in nuclear power, I believe in arithmetic.”