Sunflower Horizons

Expert outlines energy challenges, calls for less simplistic approach

April 15, 2011


When John Hofmeister talks about what is wrong with the country’s energy system, he points to the Democratic and Republican conventions of 2008.

While one side chanted “no more coal” the other was cheering “drill, baby, drill.”

That, Hofmeister said, is indicative of the simplicity with which we have addressed the problems facing our nation’s complicated energy system.

“Any wonder with that kind of intellectual curiosity and sophisticated analysis that a person who works in this arena might be disappointed?” Hofmeister said. “That is our nation’s leadership.”

As part of the Kansas University Energy Conference, Hofmeister — a former CEO of one of the world’s largest oil companies — talked for more than an hour about what’s wrong with the country’s energy system and provided a solution as to how to fix it.

Author of “Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider,” Hofmeister served as the president of Shell Oil Co. from 2005 to 2008. He is now the head of the nonprofit organization Citizens for Affordable Energy.

He quickly informed the crowd that he was a registered Democrat who was angry at the president and the seven who preceded him. He also wasn’t too pleased with the past 19 Congresses.

“Here’s the problem: We are still living off of the 20th century energy system and don’t have a clue as to what to do with the 21st century,” he said.

According to Hofmeister, here are the energy problems facing the country:

  • For renewable energy to make a difference, the industry would have to increase solar and wind farms by 10 times the amount they are currently. And a 1,000-acre wind farm would cause an uproar, Hofmeister said.
  • Thanks to rising demand in China, India and other developing countries, by 2015 the world will be consuming close to 95 million barrels of oil a day. Last fall, Hofmeister predicted the nation would be facing gas prices of $5 a gallon by the 2012 presidential election. “This is serious stuff, this is real and it is depressing,” Hofmeister said.
  • The country’s energy system of nuclear plants, coal plants and gas lines are aging, but companies are restricted by regulations in building new facilities and drilling.“We aren’t doing what needs to be done to replace the old and we aren’t drilling for oil in a material way to meet our needs,” he said.
  • Meanwhile, partisan politics has led to a government that is “dysfunctional, broken and unfixable,” Hofmeister said.

Hofmeister’s solution is to form an independent regulatory commission similar to what the country did in the early 1900s when the Federal Reserve was formed.

“Let’s take that logic, that precedent and let’s apply it to the governance of energy,” Hofmeister said.

The board would have four functions:

  • Determine what sources of energy should be used in the coming decades and transition away from forms of expensive, dirty energy sources.
  • Make decisions on what kinds of technology to embrace.
  • Replace the Environmental Protection Agency, which Hofmeister said is hindered by constant political upheaval, as the body that regulates the energy industry’s environmental impact.
  • Build needed energy infrastructure.

“We need an authority to cut through all this nonsense,” Hofmeister said, and he encouraged the crowd to persuade others to support it.

“The vast majority of the people who consider it say ‘why not?’ The current system is not working. Let’s try something new,” he said.


devobrun 7 years, 2 months ago

"Hofmeister’s solution is to form an independent regulatory commission similar to what the country did in the early 1900s when the Federal Reserve was formed".

and "“The vast majority of the people who consider it say ‘why not?’ The current system is not working. Let’s try something new,” he said."

On what rational basis are the board's decisions to be made? CO2 emissions? Safety (I'm thinking nuclear here)? Political power?

For example: Corn-based ethanol production for fuel is a lousy idea. Its efficiency is so poor that no rational board would recommend it for future energy needs. But the farmers of Iowa would have their senator throw a fit. Would the board be immune from the politics? How?

How would the board justify nuclear power plants? They work and they are a great idea....except in earthquake and tsunami-prone areas. Situating a new bunch of nukes in areas that are far from the west coast...but supply the west coast with power......would be a political nimby.

The idea of a board to oversee energy won't work. The decisions are political. Hiding behind an facade of independence would just cloak the process.

And why did not the Federal Reserve not shut down banks who packaged bad loans with derivatives and hide risk? Hmmm, maybe the Fed isn't immune from political pressure after all.

devobrun 7 years, 2 months ago

Sorry for the editing mistakes, folks. "a facade" not "an". And remove one of the "not"s in the next-to-last sentence. Whew, doing too many things at once.

livinginlawrence 7 years, 2 months ago

"Basically we're like fat people who want a pill to make them thin while still being able to eat what they want and without having to exercise."

Excellent analogy.

Ken Lassman 7 years, 2 months ago

You're right, devo; form an "independent" board composed of which special interests? And the criteria for the right energy sources and where they are placed would be just as susceptible to political pressure, graft, protests and the like as they are now, if not more so.

It's becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the energy intensive lifestyles that US citizens have grown up with while at the same time other countries are increasing their energy consumption. The return on investment (dollars/amount of energy spent per Joule of energy extracted) of the 21st century is a far cry from what it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, meaning that every energy source will cost considerably more and yield less. This despite our ever increasing technological prowess, which tempts us to dream ever larger dreams. I suspect that much of what will be mined/extracted/produced energy-wise in the future will be from the waste stream: it's cheaper to produce products/buildings/vehicles that use less energy than it is to produce more energy.

And that's not a bad thing.

George Brenner 7 years, 2 months ago

Hofmeister is correct in saying that our current energy policies are not working, partly because of the extreme polarization that has enveloped our political system. This polarization is largely responsible for our dysfunctional government, and is contributing to the greatest challenge to our political system since the civil war. Many Americans are frustrated by the extreme left and right wings that currently dominate the political parties and lead to stalemates and political posturing rather than solutions to urgent problems. I don't know how we can move the political parties to the middle, but I believe it is essential if we are going get out of the mess we have created, including the lack of a rational energy policy.

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