Middle East situation demands switch to energy self-sufficiency

For the past few years, Mark Hall, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System renewable energy specialist, has been closely following the international energy situation. While he’s not one to scare easily, he admits the volatile situation in the Middle East sometimes keeps him awake at night.

It's a small wonder why: Americans import 60 percent of the oil they consume, Hall says.

More can be done in the United States to reduce this oil dependency, he says. Like it or not, domestic petroleum will play a part in the U.S. energy future. And despite his strong commitment to alternative sources of energy, Hall is the first to bemoan the dense web of federal and state regulations that prohibit companies from tapping into the country’s remaining oil reserves. The sooner they do this, the better, he says.

Until then, Americans will be stuck running their cars and trucks with petroleum provided by people who “don’t like us.”

Among the five countries that matter most in oil production, Saudi Arabia is the only country that has any ability to increase its production. And if that isn’t troubling enough, Hall cites the disturbing, if not likely, potential for political unrest in that country.

Despite the government’s professed loyalty to American interests, Saudi Arabia remains a smoldering cauldron of anguish and resentment — a pro-American royal family pitted against a population that generally harbors strong resentments against U.S. foreign policy. And if ever the lid tightly held on these resentments is blown off, Americans may have hell to pay, Hall says.

Moving down the list of major oil producing countries, the news doesn’t get much better, he says — Iran, Iraq, Russia and Venezuela, all countries with a track record of hostility toward the United States.

But it’s the Saudi Arabian situation that worries Hall most — a situation that, by his own accounts, has kept him up at night after reading long-term projections about the political situation in that country.

A breakdown of Saudi society could lead to a rapid deterioration of the world’s oil supply, Hall says. For example, one of the most critical elements in Saudi oil production, sulfur towers, could be removed with the firing of only few mortars. It would take more than two years to ramp up production after such an attack, Hall says.

“If some terrorist manages to do that, we’ll have $200 barrels of oil really quickly,” he says.

Hall’s shocking discovery of just how vulnerable Americans are to downturn in the Mideast political situation is one reason why he decided to become a renewable energy expert in the first place — any strategy that successfully weans the United States away from foreign energy dependence and toward energy self-sufficiency is a good thing, he believes.

Hall likes to call it “building a bridge to a sustainable future,” which, in fact, was the subject of his remarks to the Russellville Civitan Club recently. It’s a bridge that likely will be highly complicated and take many years to complete, he believes.

“I don’t think it (the solution to oil dependency) is going to be one answer; it’s going to be a bunch of answers,” Hall says.

“We’re going to get there. I don’t know how we’re going to get there, but in the end, we’re going to get there.”

Like many other renewable energy proponents, Hall is a big supporter of ethanol derived from corn. But this will take us only part of the way, he says.

Other big players over time, he says, could be cellulosic ethanol, geothermal energy and even algae.

The problem, he says, is that there is no threat pressing enough to force Americans to follow through with these changes — yet, at least.

The good news for Alabamians, Hall says, is that the state is well poised to profit from the switch to renewable energy sources.

“There is going to be an opportunity for Alabamians to grow some of this stuff and make money.”

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