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Energy Solutions

One Year Later

Fuel prices reached historic height last year.

When I started writing this weekly column for the Brattleboro Reformer one year ago this week, the price of oil was spiraling to an all-time high of $147 per barrel. Residents were dealing with pre-buy heating oil contracts at over $4.50 per gallon. Panic was brewing.

Then, with a tanking economy, oil prices collapsed. Crude oil prices plummeted 80% to a four-year low of $30/barrel by late December 2008. To the surprise of a lot of experts—and myself—those prices have been rising fairly steadily since, doubling since the first of the year. In 2006 and 2007, when the price of oil rose into new territory of around $70 per barrel, that was huge news, dominating headlines. Today, having experienced prices twice as high, $70 per barrel doesn’t seem so high at all.

I hesitate to speculate on where the short- and medium-term oil prices are heading. I did pre-buy heating oil for this coming winter a month ago, but some experts are making fairly reasoned arguments that with record amounts of oil on hand worldwide and demand still weak with the global recession, oil prices could easily collapse again. As for long-term trends, however, I believe that as long as the economy eventually rebounds, energy prices will again climb to record levels—and could well exceed the $147 per barrel price we saw a year ago this month.

Relative to this column, my take-away message is that the motivation to reduce our energy use—for economic reasons—should be as great as ever. And there are other reasons to conserve energy that are arguably as important as cost.

First, it is now clear to virtually all reasonable scientists that global warming is occurring and that our worldwide combustion of fossil fuels is the leading cause of that warming. While it is too late to prevent climate change, experts believe that if we dramatically reduce our fossil fuel use over the coming decades we can forestall the most severe impacts.

Second, even if carbon dioxide emissions were not causing global warming, other environmental impacts of fossil fuel extraction, processing, combustion, and waste product disposal (remember the fly ash spill in Tennessee last year?) are significant enough to warrant a move away from fossil fuels.

Finally, there is growing recognition that U.S. dependence on imported energy (mostly oil) leaves our nation tremendously vulnerable political upheavals in unstable parts of the world, terrorism, and actions by anti-American governments. While we are right to be concerned about actions by the government of Iran, our nation could be brought to its knees by fundamentalist terrorists in Saudi Arabia if they were to succeed (as they nearly did a few years ago) of blowing up the world’s largest refinery complex. This sort of vulnerability is not a good thing.

When I launched the Energy Solutions column at the urging of the Dummerston Energy Committee, I asked myself if there was really enough material to fuel (ahem) a weekly column. Would I run out of topics? To convince myself that I wouldn’t, I started a list of issues I could cover in these bite-sized articles—coming up with a year’s worth without too much effort.

During the last year, I’ve drawn loosely from that initial list, but find that I add almost as many new ideas as I check off. My list seems nearly as long as ever!

So I look forward to another year of sharing bits of wisdom about how to reduce our energy use. Most of these columns will continue to offer practical tips for saving energy, though now and then I’ll veer off into more policy-focused musing.

As I begin the second year, I’m interested in feedback and suggestions from you. Is the column useful? What would you like to hear about? Are there questions about energy that have been nagging at you for years? Perhaps, I’ll begin interspersing some Q&A columns to respond to your specific questions.

You can contact me with specific feedback, suggestions of topics you’d like me to address, and technical questions I might cover in Q&A columns at the following e-mail address:

[email protected]. Note that in addition to appearing in the Reformer, the articles appear nationally as the Energy Solutions blog on, where all past columns are also archived.


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