The Monitor's View

Full speed ahead on new energy

T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore challenge the next president to remake the US energy industry.

T Boone Pickens and Al Gore have proposed bold plans to radically reduce America's addiction to fossil fuels. These two gadflies just might provide enough bite to provoke the next president to swifter action.

Mr. Pickens argues that using wind power for electricity and powering vehicles with domestic natural gas can replace more than one-third of our foreign oil imports within 10 years. If nothing is done, the conservative Texas oilman says, the US will send $10 trillion out of the country in the next decade, "the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind," he says.

Building wind-powered generators in the heartland of America and new transmission lines would cost $1.2 trillion but it would make America the "Saudi Arabia" of wind power, he says.

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Mr. Gore wants the US to commit to producing 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy and other clean sources – also in 10 years. His plan would cost $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion in public and private investment. But the Democrat and former vice president argues that the money will be well spent in reducing the unknown future costs of oil.

His plan relies on a vast expansion of solar, wind, and geothermal power. Nuclear generation stays at present levels. "Clean coal" would be included if the industry brings carbon-capture technology on line.

Gore would tax fuels that emit carbon dioxide, which is much more likely to reduce carbon emissions than the much talked-about "cap and trade" system. He would pair it with a deep tax cut to offset the effects on consumers. "We should tax what we burn, not what we earn," Gore says, calling this "the single most important policy change we can make."

Both Pickens and Gore recognize that partisan politics must give way in the face of this pressing need, and both hope to enlist a wide array of Americans to help them hoist the issue to the top of the fall political campaign.

Gore's plan quickly attracted fire from skeptics, who argue it is too aggressive and not possible in such a short time frame. Yet the presidential candidates are not disputing Gore's goal. Republican hopeful John McCain has pledged to wean the US off foreign oil within 17 years. And Democratic candidate Barack Obama would reduce US oil consumption by 35 percent by 2030.

So the debate now is not whether there is a need to drastically reduce the burning of fossil fuels, which is given. It's about the speed and means of change, The questions are "Which way?" and "How fast?"

Those who hammer the Gore plan ought to recall Moore's Law, in which computing power on a chip has doubled every two years. Progress in solving a problem can move ahead exponentially. Or what about Wikipedia, an invaluable destination for knowledge, with more than 2 million articles in its English version? It didn't exist just seven years ago.

Pickens and Gore express America's can-do spirit. Granted, they don't have to pass legislation and face entrenched special interests that benefit from the status quo. That extra burden must be recognized and carried by the next president. Nothing less will do.

Leaders think beyond what looks possible now. Poking holes in these plans can provide a vital vetting and a reality check. But the foot-draggers must step to the rear.

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