President Obama outlined a sweeping plan for long-term energy independence Wednesday, calling for the U.S. to slash one-third of its oil imports by 2025 and embrace homegrown alternatives like natural gas and biofuels. It's a goal shared by half a dozen presidents before him, all of whom nonetheless watched helplessly as America grew even more reliant on foreign oil. But Obama, his energy secretary and even many outside experts agree something is different this time — it could actually happen.
"For the first time since the first oil shock, I see us decreasing our dependency on imported oil," Energy Secretary Steven Chu tells the New York Times, as part of an in-depth special section devoted to U.S. energy issues. Pointing out that half the country's oil is now imported, he adds: "Can we be at half that in 20 years? Yeah, there is a real possibility of that." The fact that it's possible should not obscure the difficulty involved, though — including higher prices at the pump, at least initially. "The first thing you do is pop the price of gasoline up quite a bit, and that reduces consumption," says John Deutch, a former CIA director and under-secretary of energy. That won't be an easy sell, but with Mideast turmoil and other factors already driving up the price of gasoline, now may be a critical time to act, as Obama emphasized during Wednesday's speech. "We cannot keep going from shock when gas prices go up to trance when gas prices go back down," he said. "We can't rush to propose action when prices are high, then push the snooze button when they go down again." Many of the necessary changes are already in motion, the Times notes, as the U.S. enjoys a natural gas bonanza at home, gets more oil from Canada than Saudi Arabia, and finally has electric cars plying its streets. With the right financial incentives, this shift could evolve into a revolution, adds Amy Myers Jaffe of the Rice University Energy Program. "We could be reaching a tipping point," she says. "Our entire oil profile could change."
Of course, Obama has already suffered some setbacks in his energy vision — it was just one year ago today, for example, that he infamously unveiled plans to expand offshore drilling into the Atlantic Ocean, western Gulf of Mexico and parts of Alaska. Within a month, BP's Gulf oil spill forced him to shelve that strategy. His goal of establishing a cap-and-trade regime in the U.S. has also crumbled, and now Japan's nuclear crisis is raising doubts about his planned nuclear expansion, too. But where past presidents have failed, Obama seems determined to adapt and persevere: Ditching his push for a "comprehensive energy bill" (aka cap-and-trade), he's now touting a "clean energy standard," under which 80 percent of U.S. electricity would come from clean sources by 2035. And to get there, the U.S. won't just have to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, Obama said Wednesday — the country will have to be slowly weaned off oil in general. "The only way for America's energy supply to be truly secure is by permanently reducing our dependence on oil. ... And we have to do it quickly."
Radiation levels are still rising in the ocean outside Japan's leaking Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the AP reports, while high levels of radioactivity have also been detected in a village 25 miles away. The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency reports finding twice the safe limit of radiation in Iitate, which is located outside even the voluntary evacuation zone extending 19 miles from Daiichi (the mandatory evacuation zone extends for 12 miles). Most residents have already fled Iitate, but with about 100 choosing to stay, Japan says it's considering whether to broaden the evacuation.
"We take it seriously," a spokesman for Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency tells the AP. "We may consider asking these people to evacuate. But we need more time to study the situation." Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA is boosting its nationwide monitoring of radiation, CNN reports, after two Western states reported low levels of radiation in milk. Trace amounts have already turned up in rainwater as far away as Massachusetts, but now radioactive isotopes of iodine have also been detected in milk samples from Spokane, Wash., and San Luis Obispo County, Calif. While the idea of radiation traveling across the ocean and infiltrating the food supply is understandably troubling, though, experts insist there's no threat to public health. The radioactive iodine detected so far is at a level 5,000 times below what the FDA considers safe. "When radioactive material is spread through the atmosphere, it drops to the ground and gets in the environment," the California Department of Public Health said in a statement. "When cows consume grass, hay, feed, and water, radioactivity will be processed and become part of the milk we drink. However, the amounts are so small they pose no threat to public health."
The same can't be said for parts of Japan, however. Not only could much of the area surrounding Daiichi be rendered unlivable by radioactive contamination, but the wild spikes of radiation in seawater suggest a terrible, undiscovered leak may exist. Levels of iodine-131 in the ocean jumped from 3,355 times above the safe limit to 4,385 times that standard between Wednesday and Thursday, and have seen a 104-times increase since Friday. And although officials have downplayed that contamination — since I-131 has a half-life of just eight days — levels of the longer-lasting cesium-137 have also been spiking. That isotope has a half-life of 30 years, and a sample taken Wednesday afternoon showed contamination 527 times the legal limit. "That's the one I am worried about," a U.S.-based nuclear engineer tells CNN. "Plankton absorbs the cesium, the fish eat the plankton, the bigger fish eat smaller fish — so every step you go up the food chain, the concentration of cesium gets higher." Japan says radiation poses no risk to humans eating seafood because fishing is not allowed within 12 miles of the plant.
Humans and bats are both suffering from a housing crisis — ours is driven by the broader financial crisis, while theirs is driven by white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease that lurks in caves. But in at least one abandoned home in South Georgia, humans' misery has become a boon for bats. As the Atlanta Business Chronicle and New York Times both report, a foreclosed house in Tifton is infested with some 20,000 bats — and they won't be as easy to evict as a family of people.
"With that many bats, any house in Tifton is at risk for the bats coming," says a neighbor across the street from the "bat house," as it has become known. "The bats could go anywhere." While the bats seem to be thriving in their new digs, however, city leaders aren't exactly thrilled with the squatters — or the attention they're bringing. Tifton calls itself "the reading capital of the world," and while it's a natural habitat for several bat species, it doesn't want to be known for bats more than books. "[W]e're not the bat capital of the world," Vice Mayor W. Joe Lewis tells the Times. And the smell isn't exactly welcoming, either: "In the summer, ooh, does that place reek," says Linda Turner, 69, a retired nurse and neighbor. "You ain't smelled nothing until you come back here on a hot day."
Neighbors may have to get used to that smell for a while, though. The bats are protected by federal and state law, meaning they can't just be killed or evicted outright. They can be moved, but that of course won't be easy with roughly 20,000 of them on hand. Plus, their mating season is coming up in May, at which point they must be left alone — any attempt to move them from May to August could result in mothers being separated from their babies, potentially killing the offspring. So for now, residents and visitors of Tifton will likely just have to tolerate the novelty — and the smell — of their new neighbors. "[It] has just been breathtaking almost," one resident says.
This month's historic earthquake in Japan may not have affected America's quake risk — scientists say the distance is too vast and the tectonic relationships too remote — but that doesn't mean Americans should feel safe. Parts of the West Coast are already overdue for a major quake by many calculations, and history has shown that even minor faults in places like Missouri and South Carolina can surprise us. To help the country prepare for the inevitable disaster lurking below our feet, the National Research Council released a new report Wednesday that lays out a 20-year "road map" for raising U.S. resilience to earthquakes.
As the NRC notes, "the country has not suffered a truly devastating earthquake in more than a hundred years." While that period of relative calm has been a welcome break, the NRC also points out that "many people have been lulled into a false sense of security that the nation already is earthquake-resilient." But the inept response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 highlighted how ill-prepared the U.S. can be for an unexpected disaster, so the NRC's road map outlines 18 tasks needed to implement plans already devised by the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program.
Many of the 18 tasks sound vague or even obvious, such as No. 1: "Undertake additional research to improve understanding of earthquake phenomena and to increase earthquake-prediction capabilities." But they underscore just how far the country needs to go to be ready for a quake similar to the one that devastated Japan this month.
(Source: U.S. National Research Council)
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Photo (Obama speaking at the Energy Department in 2009): Charles Dharapak/AP
Photo (Fukushima Daiichi plant on March 24): AIR Photo Service/ZUMA Press
Photo (bats in a house in Delaware): Delaware Department of Natural Resources
Photo (San Andreas Fault): U.S. Geological Survey