Squaring Off

Step Away From the Pump

Martin Cheek Argues for a Future Without Fossil Fuels


In Squaring Off, Zócalo invites authors into the public square to answer five probing questions about the essence of their books. For this round, we pose questions to Martin Cheek, co-author of Clean Energy Nation: Freeing America from the Tyranny of Fossil Fuels.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), around 84 percent of U.S. energy comes from fossil fuels. Yet that nonrenewable energy supply is rapidly depleting, and one day it could all run out. Add steadily rising temperatures to the equation and it’s all the more reason to work on developing sustainable forms of energy right now, argues journalist Martin Cheek. In a book Cheek wrote with Congressman Jerry McNerney, Cheek makes the case for reducing our carbon footprint by breaking our dependence on fossil fuels.

1) You say that we’ve been traveling on the road of fossil-fuel addiction and continuing on that road will inevitably lead to “oblivion”. Isn’t that a little dramatic? Why should we take your claim seriously?

When Congressman McNerney and I first started writing our book, I didn’t fully realize how dramatically fossil fuels impact everything. Then I started talking to experts and studying reports – many from the U.S. military – describing how our civilization faces pending collapse from our global economy’s high dependence on oil, natural gas, and coal, and also from the impact of climate change. My eyes opened wide to the scary truth that our industrial world can’t keep traveling down the hydrocarbon highway.

Fossil fuel energy is the reason our population stands at 7 billion people-and will potentially reach 9 billion by 2050. Thanks to hydrocarbons, civilization’s food production over the last century has skyrocketed, particularly with the discovery about a hundred years ago that we could produce fertilizer through the Haber-Bosch process that uses natural gas.

Modern health care-including medicines that use petroleum products-have more than doubled our life spans since 1900, increasing our population number significantly. All these people will be hit hard by a global economic collapse from peak oil and worsening climate change overwhelming the world’s political and social structure. We’ll see violent conflict, potential oil wars, and the rise of dictators and despots if we continue down this road.

2) If fossil fuel energy will lead to our demise, why can’t we break away from this dependence and turn to more sustainable forms of energy?

Technologically, we can break away from our high and dangerous dependence on fossil fuels and turn to more sustainable forms of energy. It won’t be easy and it won’t come cheap, but it’s achievable. The problem is human nature. People need powerful incentives – especially economic incentives – to take effective action to make a rapid transition to clean energy resources and energy efficiency. We don’t have that yet. We saw in the mid-1970’s when gasoline prices rose rapidly after the OPEC embargo that Americans started driving fuel-efficient cars. They also changed their travel habits, such as carpooling and taking mass transit more often. When gasoline got cheap in the 1990’s, there wasn’t a financial incentive to conserve fuel any longer. We saw gas-guzzlers and SUVs get popular. Luckily, the trend is for an emerging growth market in hybrid and electric cars and trucks, particularly here in Silicon Valley where I live.

3) You seem to give Silicon Valley a lot of credit, calling it a hot-bed for clean energy and high-tech ideas. What’s being done in Silicon Valley to further the progress of clean energy innovation that hasn’t been done before?

Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area are no doubt today’s hot spots for clean energy research and industry. Electric vehicles, solar power, wind energy, biofuels, smart grid innovation, and so many more clean energy trends are now emerging here – and boosting our economy. It all ties into the California spirit of risk-taking. Like the computer technology businesses that emerged out of Silicon Valley, we’re now seeing the rise of pioneering clean-tech companies in the region. It’s not a coincidence. There’s a cross-over attitude of established Silicon Valley companies like Google and Adobe, among others, taking steps toward clean-energy consumption that saves them money as it saves the world. They inspire the region to reach clean energy standards. We also have some of the nation’s best universities and laboratories here in the Bay Area with scientists and researchers who possess the brain power needed to help America create renewable power.

4) If the California spirit is all about risk-taking, why aren’t other parts of California working toward that goal of clean energy innovation?

Actually, other regions of California are also now focusing on clean energy initiatives. In Clean Energy Nation, we particularly talk about the San Joaquin Valley as an example of how farming communities can benefit. This agricultural region of the Golden State is taking action to reduce farm waste and minimize fossil fuel expenses by increasing the use of natural resources such as biofuels, wind and solar energy. For example, Vintage Farms, a dairy near Fresno, makes extra cash by collecting methane from manure and injecting it into a natural gas pipeline transporting it to a PG&E power plant. Numerous solar farm projects dot our sunny state. And farms and ranches across California are installing wind turbines to harvest the energy of the breeze. Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa’s plans for a proposed “Clean Tech Corridor” in the city’s downtown one day just might give Silicon Valley a run for its money.

5) While these alternative forms of energy sound viable, one of the biggest drawbacks is that they’re not cost competitive. Why would anyone want to make the switch?

Americans take too narrow a view of fossil fuel costs. What we pay at the pump and what appears on our utility bill is a small portion of the true cost of energy. Fossil fuels come with what economists call “externality” costs. Fossil fuels damage our health, so we pay higher medical bills – more than $500 billion a year. The military bill paid for by American taxpayers to secure our access to Middle East oil is, conservatively, more than $50 billion a year. Add combating terrorism and our war in Iraq – these both linked to oil – and the bill skyrockets even higher. Our foreign oil dependence weakens our economy and kills jobs as we send dollars overseas. Burning coal alters our climate and weather patterns, damaging America’s agricultural economy and raising food prices. Add up all the externalities. You’ll see it’s actually cost effective – and common sense – for Americans to switch to clean-energy solutions.

Buy the book: Skylight Books, Powell’s, Amazon

*Photo courtesy of jypsygen.