We landed on the moon; why can’t we plug the damn hole?

Richard Russell Contributor
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On Tuesday, President Obama promised in his Oval Office address that the US could end our addiction to imported oil through technological innovation and sheer gumption:

“The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that [ending our reliance on oil] is somehow too big and too difficult to meet …the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny -– our determination to fight for the America we want for our children.” – Obama, June 15, 2010

Presidents have played this same tune for four decades, and it has proven neither useful nor true. Like President Nixon’s invocation of the Manhattan Project to support his energy initiative in 1973, President Obama used the moon-landing reference as proof that the US can become energy self-sufficient if it just tries a bit harder. And Obama’s World War II allusion came right out of President Carter’s playbook in 1979:

“Just as a similar synthetic rubber corporation helped us win World War II, so will we mobilize American determination and ability to win the energy war.” – Carter, July 15, 1979

As if ignoring the past 30 years, Obama’s warning that “we are running out of places to drill” virtually mirrored Carter’s 1977 Oval Office address stating that global supplies of oil and gas “are simply running out.” Carter’s best guess for the start of this energy apocalypse: the early 1980s.

History shows that we’ve been working to reduce our dependence on oil for a long time. After decades of effort, tens of billions of dollars in federal funds, and countless energy initiatives, the fault lies not with lack of effort but with our failure to identify a specific objective and adopt a strategy for reaching it.

We need to define the problem. Today’s efforts to reduce carbon dioxide invariably get conflated with our desire to lessen America’s dependence on imported oil. While addressing these issues together is politically convenient, it ignores the fact that the two goals are very different and at times conflicting.

Take the connection between windmills and imported oil as an example. Countless politicians and columnists have opined on the need for new, clean sources of electricity – such as windmills – in order to help our nation become energy self-sufficient. The problem is that windmills do not displace oil. Oil is used overwhelmingly for transportation, while coal is predominantly used to generate electricity. Windmills generate electricity. Such generation can displace some coal. But we have plenty of domestic coal. So windmills have nothing to do with energy independence.

The fact that windmills have nothing to do with oil appears lost on widely read pundits like Thomas Friedman. Friedman repeatedly calls for extending renewable tax credits to make wind and solar competitive with oil. Building solar farms won’t reduce oil consumption, but it is a convenient misperception that allows Friedman to blame “Big Oil” for opposing taxpayer subsidies for wind and solar. (Ironically, BP collects the same subsidies that Friedman claims they oppose.) The confusion, however, makes it much harder to actually identify and address the problem.

If we want to be more energy independent, we need to do two things. First, use less oil. Second, produce more oil domestically. The first step is consistent with the desire to reduce carbon dioxide. The second is not. Even doing both these things will not eliminate the need to import oil. If done aggressively and effectively, however, they will reduce our increasing dependence on imported oil in the mid-term.

Such a result sounds almost pedestrian when compared to landing on the moon. However, a reversal of these long-term tends – we have been importing an increasingly large percentage of our oil each successive decade since the 1980s – would in fact be a huge step forward. That reality conflicts with the grandiose language that Presidents and pundits have been using for decades and may explain why we have been losing the war for energy independence.

Claiming we can change the way we power our nation based solely on grit, determination and murky goals may be a good way to get reelected or published, but it’s a lousy way to make progress. We made it to the moon because we knew where we wanted to go and engineered a way to get there.

In his remarks, Obama made the point that we will get to the energy future we want “[e]ven if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there.” That is clearly not how we got to the moon. It does seem to be how we are trying to plug the damn hole.

Richard M. Russell founded Pinyon Labs LLC and is CEO of VIAforward, a technology consulting company.

Prior to founding Pinyon Labs, Russell spent a combined two decades as a United States Ambassador and senior Presidential and Congressional advisor on science, technology and telecommunications.