In his March 15 “State of Energy” address, President Obama strongly defended his clean energy policies and ridiculed Republicans like Newt Gingrich, who has referred to Obama as “President Algae” for his support of R&D on biofuels.
Referring to “a lot of the folks who are running for a certain office,” Obama said, “They dismiss wind power. They dismiss solar power. They make jokes about biofuels. They were against raising fuel standards. I guess they like gas-guzzlers. If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they probably must have been founding members of the flat earth society.”
In a fair world, this ought to be an optimistic time for U.S. energy supplies and security. Natural gas production is surging to record highs, even as the price of natural gas remains low; the United States last year became a net exporter of petroleum products for the first time since the late 1940s; the number of operating oil rigs has quadrupled in the last year or so; prices for solar photovoltaics continue their rapid falls; the U.S. economic recovery is gathering steam, benefiting the oil majors and opening up new opportunity for clean energy innovation.
The world, however, is not fair. Oil futures rose again last week as the possibility of military action against Iran – once considered a Strangeloveian fantasy – took on an ominous air of inevitability. Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows has been charting the “Iran Drumbeat Watch” in his blog and recent installments have been alarming, if you credit sources who point to, among other things, naval deployments (the Enterprise Strike Group has sailed, the Navy is doubling the number of minesweepers in the Persian Gulf, etc.) As a result, average gas prices hit $3.80 a gallon and show no signs of moderating. Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly discussed tapping each country’s strategic petroleum reserves in their meetings last week.
Unfortunately, pouring more oil onto the U.S. market wouldn’t do much about gas prices at the pump, which are driven by worldwide market forces. And if you think four dollar-a-gallon gas is eye-opening, just wait and see what happens if, say, Israel launches an air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. “I think you will see $5- and $6-a-gallon gas,” energy consultant Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates, told Washington political blog The Hill. Other analysts went even further: a doubling of gas prices in the United States is well within the realm of possibility if the Israel-Iran conflict breaks out, the Iranians begin blocking oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, and the U.S. finds itself dragged in.
The possible worst-case scenarios, according to former White House counterterrorism director Richard Clarke, include “a huge energy crisis,” terror attacks in U.S. cities, cyber-attacks on U.S. power grids and oil refineries, and other equally sobering thoughts.
From the clean energy perspective there’s only one immediate response: it’s a lot harder to disrupt distributed solar arrays, biofuel plants, and wind farms (not to mention natural gas plants running on domestic supplies) on U.S. territory than it is to blow up an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. The shift to domestically produced, renewable sources of energy would be the single greatest boon to national security any presidential administration could deliver. The governments in Jerusalem and Tehran could deal a serious blow to Barack Obama’s re-election prospects by launching a regional war that drives a worldwide spike in oil prices. Such a disastrous conflict, though, would likely also spark rising public demand for and renewed political acceptance of new and less vulnerable energy supplies. Speaking in Boulder City, Nevada, on March 21st on a Western swing to promote his energy policies, President Obama once again affirmed his support for clean energy technologies. It’s a message that resonates more powerfully as tensions mount in the Middle East.