Energy and the Quest for Peace

Don Scherer

Terror is an ancient weapon of war.  Body paint, noise, the determination of troops and the horror of witnessing thousands of innocents losing their lives – all of these have been the instruments of terror.  Terrorists place themselves on a path towards death because, within themselves, they feel greatly provoked.  The path to that provocation leads through America’s reliance on petroleum. Almost thirty years ago, long lines at the gas pumps and an energy crisis gripped America.  America responded in part with more fuel-efficient autos and motors, but as domestic petroleum became scarcer and more expensive to extract and refine, dependence on foreign petroleum grew. 

Then came the Gulf War.  The President put together a broad coalition in response to what was widely perceived as the aggression of Iraq against Kuwait.  Kuwait remained independent.  But the US appetite for energy, steady from 1973-91, has grown in the past ten years and so has US dependence on foreign oil.  To the detractors of the United States, the Gulf War was not about resisting aggression against Kuwait.  It was about propping up a government that would feed our energy consumption habits regardless of how much Muslim nations came under the influence of American culture and values.  To our detractors, the ugly side of those values includes our materialism, wanton sexuality and disregard of spiritual values. To such detractors it is unsurprising that people with such poor values would expose themselves, in their greed, by cravenly consuming more and more oil, then insisting that others should meet their needs. 

America is a peace-loving nation.  Americans do not seek war and they earnestly pray that the present conflict can be resolved with the least possible bloodshed.  What we know today, however, is that winning the Gulf War did not end the conflict.  Instead, despite our care to avoid civilian targets during the war, post-war American effort has led some people to instigate the terrorism we have so painfully experienced.

What we did not gain from the Gulf War was immunity from detractors who despise our extraction of oil from foreign supplies.  We need an alternative that does not annoy so people of other cultures that our detractors continue to win a stream of converts to their terrorist ways.

Because we are a peace-loving nation, a nation whose people would not want to sew the seeds of conflict, one lesson for us is that we must move immediately to reduce and eliminate our reliance on foreign petroleum.  When hostilities next cease, we don’t want to continue to need to fight to protect our dependence on foreign oil.  Ceasing that dependence will affirm our peaceful intentions.

The scale of our energy needs is a serious matter. The nation’s use of oil is great enough today that an intensified search for domestic sources, even the opening of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, would be statistically meaningless.  We simply do not have the domestic sources to reduce petroleum imports significantly.

So the question is how to act.  What petroleum supplies is mobility for the nation and heating for the Northeast.  I am myself a strong proponent of conservation and of renewable energy.  But even doubling the fuel efficiency of gas-powered vehicles would leave us seriously dependent on foreign oil a full ten years from now.  And when less than 1% of the energy needs of the nation are met by solar and wind power together, we don’t begin to have the infrastructure to heat the Northeast through these important future energy sources. 

What the United States has is an abundance of coal.  Traditionally, however, reliance on coal has had two significant drawbacks.  First, a lot of our coal is dirty.  Burned, it produces smog, air pollution, asthma, dead lakes and burdens our good Canadian neighbors do not deserve.  Second, nobody drives a coal-burning car down the street. 

Can a turn to coal answer these two challenges?  Coal gasification can.  Coal gasification is a process of submitting coal to enormous pressure in an oxygen-starved environment.  The result is a gas.  Such gas could be piped to the northeast to warm the winter.  The most publicized coal gasification processes are capable of responding to the northeast’s home heating needs.  Because the process allows the carbon dioxide it produces to be sequestered, it is also much more environmentally friendly than burning coal or oil has ever been.  But that path speaks not at all to vehicle fuel.  The hydrogen and carbon monoxide in that gasification stream are not suitable vehicle fuels.  Is there an alternative?

The ready option is for the nation to move towards coal gasification that co-produces methanol fuel and electricity.  Again, the gasification process avoids venting pollutants into the atmosphere.  And the methanol can be formulated into M85, the mix of methanol with 15% gasoline that fleets use in California.  Not only does this gasification process respond to transportation needs.  It also yields gas that can be burned in a gas turbine it to produce electricity much more cleanly than coal combustion does today.  Bottom-line: Coal gasification to co-produce methanol and electricity is a powerful answer to our energy needs.  If we were to convert our old coal combustion facilities for gasification co-production, it has been carefully estimated, we would eliminate our need for foreign oil at the same time that our impact on the natural environment became much more benign. 

So let us not aggravate one-time supporters to become our enemies, roughly ignoring the nuances of their culture.  Let us not pollute our neighbors, the natural world and ourselves in ways that our children must ultimately repay.  Instead, let us use the technological and organizational capacities of our great nation so the resources that so richly bless us remove us from the terrorist vulnerability now encroaching. 

As the President has told us, we are engaged in a multifaceted conflict.  Beyond military questions, he has told us, lie diplomatic, cultural and economic issues.  Energy supply is a central, underlying factor.  No matter how successful we are militarily, diplomatically, culturally, and economically, we shall not succeed in the mission to which the President has called the nation until we put our energy house in order. 

Donald Scherer, Professor of Applied Philosophy at Bowling Green State

University, is, with James Child, the co-author of Two Paths towards

Peace and the editor of Upstream-Downstream Issues in Environmental


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