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The Coming Energy Crisis

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Two hundred years ago, the world experienced an energy revolution that launched the Industrial Age. The catalyst to this epochal shift was ordinary black coal, an energy-rich hydrocarbon that supplanted wood as the primary fuel. The energy stored in coal gave inventors and industrialists the power they needed to process steel, propel steamships, and energize machines. A century later, the industrialized world's thirst for energy had increased tremendously. Petroleum and natural gas were exploited as versatile and high quality energy products, and soon joined coal as principal fuels. Fifty years later, scientists tapped uranium to fuel nuclear reactors and provide atomic energy.

Today, cheap energy is the lifeblood of American society. But there is a dangerous dark side to relying on non-renewable resources like coal, oil, natural gas, or uranium to supply our growing energy demands. The supply of these fuels is physically limited, and their use threatens our health and environment. Fears of global warming aside, burning fossil fuel releases chemicals and particulates that can cause cancer, brain and nerve damage, birth defects, lung injury, and breathing problems. The toxic stew released by combusting hydrocarbons pollutes the air and water, and causes acid rain and smog. Nuclear energy, once touted as "too cheap to meter," has never been economically successful when all costs are factored in, and fear of disasters like the Chernobyl reactor melt-down have virtually shut the industry down in the U.S. and Europe. Inexpensive and seemingly abundant nonrenewable energy fueled the twentieth century economy, but geologists, climatologists, environmentalists, and many others are warning that the honeymoon may soon be over.

Coal is the most abundant of the carbon-based fossil fuels, but it is also a leading threat to human health and the environment. Coal currently provides 24% of the world's primary energy requirements and, in 1999, generated 57% of all the electricity used in the U.S. Existing coal reserves may be large, but they won't last forever, and health and environmental costs limit its potential as an acceptable fuel in the future. Burning coal currently accounts for 43% of all annual global carbon emissions, about 2.7 billion tons.

The top ten most air-polluted cities in the world—nine in China, one in India—all use coal as a primary energy source. Atmospheric scientists have tracked large dust clouds of particulates and sulfur from Asia to the United States' west coast. In the U.S., coal reserves surpass those of oil and natural gas by about two hundred years and can be mined domestically, but using coal simply because there is plenty of it would be a serious mistake. Air pollution, acid rain, greenhouse gas emissions, and other health dangers associated with processing coal into electricity take their toll on countless people around the world. Western governments rarely discuss "coal" and the "future" in the same sentence anymore, but burning coal has become a global problem that respects no international boundaries.

Cheap and abundant oil is an intoxicating elixir that the world's industrial nations have guzzled down as if there is no tomorrow. Petroleum currently accounts for 40% of the world's energy, but many geologists anticipate an oil supply crisis sometime within the next two decades when global demand will exceed supply. While some argue that huge deposits of oil may lie undetected in far-off locations of the globe, experts point out that there is only so much crude in the world, and industry has found about 90% of it. The world's burgeoning population is dependent on food grown with petroleum-based fertilizers, cultivated by machines running on cheap fuel.

In 1950, the U.S. was producing half the world's oil. Fifty years later, we don't produce half our own oil. Domestic production peaked in 1970. Originally, America was blessed with about 260 billion barrels; only one country, Saudi Arabia, had more. Although the U.S. is now the world's third largest producer, about 65% of our known oil has been burned. It's downhill from here. The U.S. has 4% of the world's people but slurps down 25% of the world's oil. If the Chinese annually consumed oil at the same per capita rate as Americans, there would be none available for anyone else.

Natural gas (methane) is being touted by energy providers as an abundant clean fuel for the twenty-first century. It is forecast to be the fastest growing primary energy source, because it burns cleaner than coal or oil. But this resource is also nonrenewable, and the Department of Energy states that the U.S. has only 3.5% of the world's total natural gas reserves-enough to last about sixty-five years. More than 70% of the world's proven natural gas reserves are located in the politically risky Persian

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