Community leaders discuss future energy crisis, solutions in America

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By Sonya Harvey

With the onslaught of political films, such as Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and “War Made Easy,” narrated by actor-activist Sean Penn, environmental policy in the United States has once again become a burning issue, and the country finds itself listening to a “Conversation on Energy.”

On Nov. 8, ConocoPhillips and the University of Texas at San Antonio College of Engineering hosted a town hall meeting with community leaders to discuss the nation’s energy future.

“This conversation is long overdue,” Robert A. Ridge, vice president of health, safety and environment for ConocoPhillips, said.

In 2006, ConocoPhillips conducted a survey to determine where the oil industry stood in the minds of Americans.

The industry found the results astounding.

According to the survey, the tobacco industry, known for contoversial advertising tactics, is considered by the American people to be more trustworthy than the oil industry.

“We have to start to rebuild that trust, and that’s why we’re here today,” Ridge said.

A panel of five industry insiders, including Ridge, gathered to discuss the nation’s energy future, focusing on positions and perspectives around energy solutions that are secure, reliable, available and environmentally responsible.

“One solution is not sufficient,” said Dr. Stathis Michaelides, chair of the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at San Antonio and an advocate for renewable energy sources such as solar, hydroelectric and wind energy.

“In a place like San Antonio, I think it’s sinful not to use more solar energy,” Michaelides said.

Michaelides’ solution to the ongoing energy crisis was to spend money on researching how to produce and store renewable energy sources.

Robert Potts, president of the Water Dixon Foundation, agreed.

Potts said his primary focus is on conserving and maintaining natural water resources while still focusing on harnessing the potential role water could play in solving the energy shortage.

“Water tends to get overpriced and underused,” Potts said.

Whatever the solution, Potts said he hopes the oil and energy industries will ask themselves, “What is the cost on our water resources?”

Dr. Dianne Rahm, professor of political science and director of public administration  at UTSA, questioned the government’s role in energy policy.

“I can sum up the energy policy in this country for the last 50 years in three words: cheap and abundant,” Rahm said.

In the ’70s, when the government placed regulatory standards on the oil industry, it looked as though they were finally taking a stand on conserving energy resources, but a solution to the energy crisis has yet to be found.

As time goes on and the energy crisis worsens, small solutions to a big problem may not be enough.

Today, the government offers tax relief to individuals who buy hybrid cars and use alternative energy sources in their homes, but the nation is still dependent on fossil fuels as a primary energy source.

“What we need is a radical transformation,” Rahm said.

Rahm likened the change needed in this country to the momentous occasion of landing on the moon and the phenomenal undertaking of the Manhattan Project, in which scientists were able to harness the power of the atom, changing the world as we know it.

“Where there’s a will, and where government’s united, a change can happen,” Rahm said. “With a clear goal and open checkbook, you can achieve great things.”

Colette Reynolds, manager of challenged resources at ConocoPhillips, said, “We’re aiming to change the footprint of our platform, and that’s where we’re investing our money.”

According to ConocoPhilips’ second-quarter report for 2007, ConocoPhillips and Tyson Foods Inc., have established a strategic alliance to produce and market the next generation of renewable diesel fuels.

San Antonio was the 32nd stop on the “Conversation on Energy” tour, hosted by the energy giant as another way to reach out to the public and seek answers to the energy problem.

However, when the public had a chance to discuss their concerns and voice their opinions, one audience member asked the panel if an oil empire like ConocoPhillip’s attempts to take environmental action was just a case of “greenwashing.”

Greenwashing is when a major corporation takes baby steps toward an environmental cause to get positive public recognition with very little effort.

“We ask you to judge our company by what we do, not what we say,” Ridge said. ”We don’t have all the answers; that’s why we are here.”

The question still remains: How does the nation transition from a fossil fuel-based society to an energy-efficient society without destroying anything else in its path?

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