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Fueling the Present, and the Future

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In the real world, people say: “You can’t beat something with nothing.” But Washington exists outside the boundaries of the real world. Here, lawmakers have placed their bets on “nothing.” And they have the political power to rig the outcome.

Take the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Actually, “controversial” isn’t the right word. When people hear about the proposal to build a pipeline from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf coast of Texas, they overwhelmingly support it. For example, a February poll by the Pew Research Center found that “among those who have heard at least a little about the Keystone XL pipeline, 66 percent say the government should approve the pipeline, while just 23 percent say it should not.” Americans see that gas prices are soaring, and they realize that the best way to reduce them would be to increase the supply of gasoline. Keystone XL would safely deliver Canadian crude to American refineries.

It would also increase employment, in both the long- and short-term. “The $7 billion pipeline project is expected to directly create more than 15,000 high-wage manufacturing jobs and construction jobs in 2011-2012 across the U.S., stimulating significant additional economic activity,” study by the Perryman Group determined. Further, “once the pipeline is operational, the states along the pipeline route are expected to receive an additional $5.2 billion in property taxes during the estimated operating life of the pipeline.”

Even if you doubt those exact numbers, it’s impossible to deny that the project will create jobs. These, by the way, would be old fashioned jobs; they’d be paid for by a private employer, not the federal government. And they’d generate tax revenue that would in turn flow to the government, allowing it to support more programs. Seems like a win-win-win. A vote for “something.”

But hold on.

“Democrats and their environmental supporters counter that the president must weigh the benefits of fossil fuels against their environmental impact and the importance of promoting renewable energy,” The Washington Post reported, explaining why the Senate recently rejected a measure to speed approval of the pipeline project.

Expanding on that point, Joe Nocera cited environmental activist Bill McKibben in The New York Times: “stopping Keystone would help accelerate what he described as the difficult transition from a fossil fuel economy to a new, brighter world based on renewable sources of energy.”

But in the real world there’s no choice between gasoline and “renewable sources of energy.” Yes, there are hybrids, but they rely on coal-fired plants for much of their electricity. There are battery-powered cars, but they don’t go very far. The Chevy Volt can go about 35 miles on a charge. Good luck getting home if you live 20 miles from work.

The federal government is spending plenty of borrowed money trying to support alternative energy. But it’s not working. “A123 Systems, a maker of electric-car batteries that has received $374 million in state and federal loans, announced 125 layoffs last fall. The cause: problems at its main customer, Fisker Automotive, which builds expensive plug-in electric cars,” Charles Lane wrote recently in the Post. “Fisker got a half-billion in loans from the Energy Department, though the money was recently frozen because of the company’s failure to meet production targets.”

Fisker has other problems. Consumer Reports tried to test the company’s Karma, but the vehicle broke down almost immediately. “We buy about 80 cars a year and this is the first time in memory that we have had a car that is undriveable before it has finished our check-in process,” the magazine reports.

Then there’s Solyndra, the $50 light bulb, and any number of other government-supported failures.

For years to come, gasoline will be the only game in town. Want to drive to Disneyworld for vacation? Renewable energy won’t get you there. Live 30 miles from work? Renewable energy won’t get you there. Want to visit grandma one state over this weekend? Renewable energy won’t get you there.

Renewable energy may have a bright future. Private companies are experimenting with ways to get fuel from algae, jatropha(a non-edible plant) and other biological sources. If there are any breakthroughs, expect them to come from these private investors, not from the federal government.

But for now, renewable energy is essentially “nothing.” As gas nears $5 a gallon, we need to produce more of it, quickly. Because if we don’t take care of our energy present, there won’t be a future to look forward to.

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