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    Candidates' Positions on Energy

In the earliest days of US history, circa late 18th – early 19th centuries, the vast majority of energy consumed by Americans came from the burning of wood. This was an extremely plentiful natural resource, especially in relation to total energy demands of the day. Consequently, energy crises were not ordinarily a concern, as the heat necessary for warming, cooking, and other essentials could generally be chopped by oneself for the cost of time and effort. Shortages of energy were more likely to affect individual families who had failed to stockpile enough firewood for the winter, than to cause widespread economic panic.

The middle and late parts of the 19th century brought a fundamental change, as the spread of locomotive transportation (railroad), and even more crucially, Thomas Edison's implementation of electric power, sent energy demand soaring. In the new era, most of this demand was fed by coal, which – while readily available – was markedly less convenient to acquire than wood, generally having to be mined by dedicated workers. Nevertheless, as the technological, social, and economic revolution brought about by rail and electricity spread across the continent, coal became the fuel of choice for power generation, and roundabout 1890 it began overtaking wood as the nation's principal energy source. By 1925, coal was the undisputed top dog; no other source of energy came close.

However, the growing utilization of automobiles as a means of conveyance over horse-drawn carriages gradually brought a new player into the arena: Oil, whose use as a source of energy would alter the social and political landscape forever. Not only was this substance necessary to fuel cars, which could not run on coal, but it was useful for electrical power generation as well. Oil overtook coal as the nation's main overall energy source in the late 1930s - early 1940s, and has left all other fuels far behind ever since. In the early part of the 21st century, more energy was harnessed from oil in the United States than from any source at any time in the nation's history. This includes new sources such as solar, wind, and nuclear power, developed as a result of advancing technology and the nation's growing preoccupation with environmental concerns.

American use of oil has had profound implications for the country and helped to define an era of global politics. The US is only able to produce so much domestic oil profitably, and these levels have always proven insufficient to satisfy local demand. This had led to an age of American energy dependency, in which the nation must rely on oil imports from other countries to meet its needs. Because so much of these imports come from nations in the oil-rich Middle East, an unstable region populated by nations with which the US often has strained relations, the supply of an important natural resource now essential to the proper functioning of the American economy is never secure. For instance, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution led to serious interruptions and uncertainties in oil supplies that caused the 1970's Energy Crunch, when oil prices soared. Economic stagnation in the US was the result.

In the period 1997 – 2010, the United States actually imported more oil than it produced locally. Not all of it came from hostile or unstable countries, but enough of it did that American oil dependence on foreign countries became an even more serious political concern. In more recent years, however, and contrary to popular belief, the US has produced most (about 60%) of its own oil domestically, leading to a reduced reliance on imported oil. Furthermore, the nation's energy paradigm may be shifting again. Beginning around 2014, spurred by weak demand as alternative energy sources are increasingly sought as well as a persistent worldwide supply glut, the global oil market has undergone a catastrophic price collapse. From record highs of roughly $140 per barrel, crude oil prices have plummeted to lows under $30. Fluctuations (hoped each time by the industry to be “rallies”) have occurred since then, but most analysts currently believe that structural problems with the market will keep prices generally depressed for at least the foreseeable future. Barring major changes to the present scenario, this may mean that oil, while still an essential resource, may no longer be as precious in coming years as it once was.

Central Issues

The burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal yields carbon dioxide (CO2), a potent “greenhouse gas” that reflects heat radiating from the Earth's surface, trapping it within the atmosphere and leading to an overall global warming or climate change. Oil also carries dangers associated with drilling for it, as rig accidents (such as the 1979 Ixtoc I blowout and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster) can lead to “spills” in which crude oil flows directly from the well into the surrounding terrain, with potentially devastating effects on local ecosystems and economies. These unfortunate facts are the main reasons many societies have investigated alternative forms of energy, such as solar, wind, and nuclear, though each of these carry concerns of their own.

Those taking a conservative position on pollution usually feel that its effect on human civilization and the planet at large have been overstated. They celebrate the advances in technology (such as electric power and the internal combustion engine) that have made modern levels of fossil fuel use necessary, and they worry that hasty efforts to contain pollution risk taking an economic toll on any nation sponsoring them. Traditionally, high-level American conservatives (especially Republicans) have been seen as having close ties to the oil industry, which of course has financial incentives for opposing any reductions in fossil fuel use. Some conservatives go so far as to deny the existence of climate change or that it is anthropogenic (caused by human activity), though this position is contradicted by a majority of climate scientists.

Social liberals tend to be more concerned about pollution and sensitive to its actual and potential impact. They are likely to accuse conservatives of serving the interests of big industry (oil and others) and of ignoring facts. Liberals usually favor aggressive research and implementation in alternative energy sources in order to scale down the use of fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy, and they champion conservation efforts such as recycling. In addition to economic concerns, some feel a moral imperative to protect the environment, with the most extreme leftists opposing modern human civilization as it stands altogether and arguing that only pre-industrial agrarian living is ecologically responsible.

Nuclear Power
Nuclear power is generated by bombarding a fissile element – such as Uranium isotope 235 – with neutrons, thus causing the unstable atom to split or “fission” into two smaller atoms. The sum of the two “daughter” atoms' mass is inferior to that of the original “parent”, with the lost mass being converted into energy – including heat. By repeating this process a very large number of times, vast quantities of energy can be produced, potentially enough to fuel all of human civilization. Unfortunately, nuclear power carries serious hazards, principally the creation of radioactive waste materials (some of which must be isolated from the environment for tens of thousands of years) and the danger of a reactor core “meltdown” such as those seen in the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.

Those opposed to the use of nuclear power point to these concerns. They question whether any nuclear waste containment area could ever be truly secure, worrying that an inopportune earthquake could potentially shatter the dump and expose its contents to the ground. They fear that core meltdowns can strike despite any and all safety precautions, sometimes even because of natural disasters outside of human control (referencing again Fukushima, which was destabilized by the impact of a tsunami wave). Nuclear waste disposal also notoriously suffers from the “NIMBY” – Not In My Back Yard – paradox: there are many suitable locations on Earth for storing the hazardous material, but no one wants to live near one.

Proponents of nuclear power praise the technology's potential for enormous energy generation. They are also quick to point out the fact that nuclear energy generation does not produce CO2 gas (the only “pollution” being nuclear waste), and also that it is arguably a renewable energy source – currently extractable uranium fuel is enough to last for over a millenium, and if it becomes possible to harness trace (but large in aggregate) uranium in ocean water and the Earth's crust, the supply would be effectively limitless (lasting for billions of years at today's levels of consumption). These people answer safety concerns by referencing the fact that meltdowns are virtually unheard of (statistically speaking, in relation to the number of reactors that have operated safely for decades), and they claim that nuclear waste can be stored securely with minimal risk. Raised repeatedly has been the suggestion of mounting the waste onto rockets for launch into space, either to be lost in the void or deliberately directed into the Sun – however, this idea has always failed to gain traction due to concern over the consequences of a potential launch failure.

Keystone XL Pipeline
The Keystone Pipeline is a long-distance system of oil conveyance spanning thousands of miles, essentially a series of great pipes originating in Hardisty in Alberta, Canada, and delivering oil south to the United States. It terminates at a number of storage facilities (called “tank farms”) and refineries in Illinois, Texas, and Louisiana, among other states. In September of 2008, a pipeline expansion dubbed “Keystone XL” was proposed, suggesting to increase the system's capacity between Hardisty and its primary junction in Steele City, Nebraska. The idea immediately fell afoul of the concerns of environmentalists, who called for a thorough review of its potential impact. At last, in 2015, after nearly seven years of investigation, discussion, and controversy, the US House and Senate approved a bill authorizing construction of the pipe. However, President Barack Obama, who shared left-leaning environmental worries, vetoed the bill. In March of 2015, the Senate held a vote attempting to override the president's veto, but was unsuccessful, and the bill did not pass into law. Though reviews by the State Department are ongoing, TransCanada, the corporate owner of the Keystone Oil Pipeline, does not appear optimistic about the project's future: In late 2015, it asked the Obama administration to formally suspend its Keystone XL permit application.

Those citing concerns over Keystone XL's implementation worry over the pipe's potential environmental impact. They point out the danger of catastrophic oil spills, which could theoretically occur anywhere along Keystone's vast length, and they object to the use of “oil sands” - the pipeline's primary source of oil – the harvesting of which causes greater greenhouse gas emissions than standard drilling. Opponents also are uncomfortable with possible disruptions to wildlife along Keystone XL's proposed route, especially as it crosses a sensitive wildlife habitat in Sandhills, Nebraska. They remained generally unsatisfied by TransCanada's alteration of the proposed path, which was aimed at addressing and alleviating Nebraska environmental fears.

Supporters of Keystone XL argue that the pipeline's impact upon local environments would be minimal and easily mitigated. They say the project would be a potent job creator, both in the need for construction of the pipe itself and in the oil industry, which would have an increased supply of product to transport and process. They also cite dangerous American dependence on Middle Eastern oil, which they say would be dramatically lessened by increased imports from political ally and friend Canada.

Candidates' Positions on Energy

Hillary Clinton
Gary Johnson
Jill Stein
Donald Trump


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