Senator Harkin — Securing America’s Energy Future

Circa 2006
3 picture's of Senator Harkin
Senator Harkin


Dear ABILITY Magazine Readers,

America’s citizens basically understand we are facing an energy crisis that affects all of us. To me the signs are clear. We are confronting a major transition of our energy systems, one that we must face head on. On our current energy path we continue to increase consumption of oil, gas and coal in the face of dwindling domestic and global supplies of those resources; we face concerns about access to the larger oil and gas resources in many less-than-friendly nations; and more and more indicators are proving that global warming is a real and legitimate threat.

The recent history of oil is a telling one to illustrate the dangerous course we are on. Statistics show that the largest discoveries of oil fields all happened over 25 years ago. In spite of our much more sophisticated, computerized geological exploration capabilities, oil discoveries continue to decline.

Now let’s compare that with global oil consumption. We’re using about 30 billion barrels per year. The more important reality is that we are using about three times as much per year as we’re finding! In the rural lingo of my home state of Iowa, when you’re letting your reserve stocks decline through consumption as this illustrates, we call that “eating your seed corn.”

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This is an especially important issue for the United States as we are quickly learning. We’re consuming about 25 percent of the 80 million barrels of oil per day that the world is using. But in the face of this demand, we have less than 2 percent of the global oil reserves. What’s more ominous is that most of the largest reserves are in countries or regions that are not all that friendly toward the United States—places like the Middle East and Russia.

The message is crystal clear to me—we cannot continue to consume oil the way we are today.

But oil consumption is not our only energy problem. When I came to Congress some 30 years ago, almost no one realized that global warming might be a problem. A few scientists knew we were changing the composition of the world’s atmosphere, noted by the rise in carbon dioxide concentrations. But virtually no one talked about the potential consequences of that. Only in the 1980s did scientists begin to investigate this phenomenon. Of course, since then not only do almost all scientists accept that our changes to the atmosphere are likely to increase global temperatures, but also we have increasing evidence that it is already happening.

Despite this improved knowledge, it will take the collective will of the people to make real change, because true transition is a challenge. This is due partially to the fact that most of the elements of our energy systems are long-lived. Our cars are driven over 10 years, so their fuel requirements and efficiency are with us for a decade. Our homes and other buildings last many decades. While future retrofits to reduce energy consumption are possible to some extent, the energy consumption of our buildings over those decades depends heavily on their initial design plans. Similarly, power plants operate for dozens of years and are not easily converted to new energy sources. So it will take some time to make a broad transition to a new energy system that relies less on fossil fuels and more on alternative energy sources. That’s why we need to start now.

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While average Americans might not know the details, they are fully aware that we have serious national energy problems. Americans know we have to develop cleaner sources of energy and use them more judiciously. They know we are facing the need for a major transition of our energy systems. And they know what they prefer. For 30 years, poll after poll has indicated that Americans want more renewable energy and greater energy efficiency. In meetings with my fellow citizens, I’m asked why we haven’t acted, why we haven’t done more to get this transition started.

We should act now. The next Congress should develop and pass comprehensive energy legislation. We can do that. We already know in broad terms what is required.

To address our oil problem, we need to work on both the supply and the demand sides. For transportation, we need both alternatives to gasoline and more efficient vehicles. I’m pleased to report that we have begun the transition to alternative fuels in the form of domestic biofuels produced in rural America. The production and use of both ethanol and biodiesel are expanding rapidly. I’m proud to say that the energy title we included in the 2002 farm bill and the biofuels provisions of the 2005 energy bill are paving the way toward much larger biofuels contributions in the decades to come. Indeed, recent studies indicate that biofuels can contribute as much as 30 percent of our transportation fuels by 2030, less than 25 years from now.

That energy title in the 2002 farm bill also promotes another path to reduced oil consumption. Section 9002 of that bill supports the development and use of biobased products that directly offset the need for oilbased products—everything from industrial cleaners to insulation to socks—in the industrial sector.

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Both of these pathways—biofuels and biobased products—are clear winners and are deserving of even more federal support. As we formulate our 2007 farm bill, I’ll be looking to do everything we can to expand and accelerate the production and use of these domestic, renewable resources.

However, we can’t simply replace all of our oil with biofuels and biobased products. Most analyses show that the volume is too great. At the same time, we know we can manufacture much more efficient vehicles. Auto and truck technologies have advanced tremendously over the past several decades, yet average auto efficiencies have remained flat. That’s because we applied most of the technology advances to increased performance, especially in the form of faster accelerations and larger vehicles. It is time to refocus vehicle technology research and development onto vehicle fuel efficiency.

The time is here to begin this movement to an energy policy that focuses on the future. It will take the dedication of vast amounts of effort and capital over many years to accomplish.

But I think all Americans understand that, and it is the job of Congress to provide the framework and the guidance to enable this effort to move forward. Sincerely,

Senator Tom Harkin

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