Affordable energy needed for economic resurgence

Jan. 20, 2011, 9:28PM

So important was the matter of ensuring the U.S. government had ample and unrestricted access to helium in the future that lawmakers got together in 1920 to pass what is regarded as the first real energy bill in Congress. That legislation, known as the Mineral Leasing Act, expanded the definition of minerals available for development on federal lands to include things like coal, oil, natural gas and potash. But Congress drew the line at helium, reserving “the ownership of and the right to extract helium from all [natural] gas produced from lands leased” under the act.

The reason? Helium was to be the great lifting agent for the military’s aerostat fleet of the 20th century, with Congress even establishing a National Helium Reserve in 1925 to guarantee future supply. Needless to say, Congress turned out to be wrong about the role helium would play in securing our nation’s future. But with more than 14 million Americans out of work and gasoline prices hurtling toward $4 a gallon, Congress can’t afford to be wrong about our nation’s energy policy any longer.

Earlier this week, Consumer Energy Alliance delivered a briefing book to Congress that identifies dozens of straightforward, common-sense recommendations for getting our nation’s current and future economic outlook back on track — using affordable energy as a means of creating new jobs, sending revenues back to the states, and protecting the environment and responding to climate change while we’re at it. To be sure, saying you support an “all of the above” energy policy has become more than a little cliché on Capitol Hill. But that doesn’t make it any less valid an approach.

Believe it or not, it wasn’t that long ago that energy policy was considered more of a regional issue in Congress than a political one. More than anything, it was your physical location that determined your position on nuclear energy, oil and natural gas development, biofuels, wind, solar and geothermal. To some extent, and on some issues, those geographical considerations remain.

But with world energy demand expected to rise by 49 percent over the next two decades, and U.S. demand slated to increase by 14 percent, no one who’s serious about addressing these needs can possibly conclude that our current path is sustainable. When it comes to energy, the plain truth of the matter is this: We need it all, we need it now, and we need it to be delivered in a way that’s both responsible and affordable. And we can’t afford to settle for anything less – not if we have any expectation of meeting these historic challenges in the future.

The good news is, for the first time in a long time, just about everyone agrees that our country is blessed with an extraordinary natural resource base. The combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing – and the application of these two common technologies to shale beds deep underground – has helped us unlock hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of clean-burning, American natural gas, enough gas to meet the country’s demand for the next 90 to 100 years. At the same time, nearly 10,000 megawatts of generating capacity for wind was installed in 2009 – establishing it as a viable means of affordable, zero-emissions power. And although still only a small contributor to the grid, solar energy installations increased 24-fold over the past decade.

But just because our nation has a wealth of resources at its disposal doesn’t mean those resources will be produced. Abundance is nice, but it doesn’t amount to much without a real plan to deliver access.

Unfortunately, the ongoing inability for offshore energy producers in the Gulf of Mexico to secure basic permits from federal regulators is just the latest example of how a bad or confusing policy from Washington often leads to bad or unintended policy outcomes outside the Beltway. Estimates suggest that total U.S. oil production will decline by 13 percent in 2011, in large part owing to the continued “permitorium” in the Gulf. Anyone who doesn’t think this will have an impact on the price we pay at the pump is whistling past the graveyard. And anyone who doesn’t think that rising gas prices will soften and perhaps even delay our nation’s economic recovery – well, they’re out to lunch on this too.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, but as Congress (to its credit) understood way back in 1920 – the mere existence of a resource does not alone guarantee its supply. Fast-forward 91 years. Once again, Congress finds itself with a clear opportunity to act, at a time when genuine action has never been required more. This time, though, it’s the future of the American economy that’s at stake – not just the hot-air balloon. How and whether lawmakers decide to seize on this moment will be critical. They can start by picking up a copy of our report.

Holt is the president of Consumer Energy Alliance, which is based in Houston.