You can't read the newspapers or surf the web without coming face to face with the pivotal human problem of energy resources: what sources we should produce and consume, the environmental impacts, and who should control energy development.
"Fracking" has rejuvenated the natural gas industry, but some are attacking the process as unhealthy to humans and the environment.
The U.S. armed services have begun to experiment with "alternative" fuel sources in order to reduce battlefield deaths and rising fuel costs.
Corporations market themselves as firms dedicated to "energy conservation"—"green" companies whose management strategies rest on the efficiencies of "sustainability."
And when it comes to energy, much has changed in recent decades. A half century ago fracking, alternative fuels, energy conservation, and sustainability were neither everyday news items nor were they significant forces within American energy policy-making.
In the 1960s, carbon-based fuels sustained the ongoing postwar economic expansion. Coal-fired electric plants served factories and homes. Oil refineries produced fuels for transportation and petro-chemicals for consumer goods (such as plastics and fashions).
A convergence of historical trends in the 1970s, however, "shocked" American energy markets. From that point, energy policy-making entered what analysts call the ongoing "long transition" away from carbon-based fuels.
This long transition is characterized by two strands—deregulation of markets on the one hand, and an environmental sensibility, on the other hand, that recognizes that earlier policies, which encouraged increased consumption of carbon-based fuels, are no longer sustainable. Instead, around the globe, states, scientists, entrepreneurs, and consumers are emphasizing different approaches to developing energy sources that sustain this more recent environmental perspective.
This long transition, however, is not complete, coherent, nor accepted by all interests involved in energy policy-making in the U.S. The fact is that coal still dominates our electric generation and oil still drives transportation. As has been the case since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the early 19th century, there is a lot of both still to be mined and produced around the world, while the prices of both remain lower than alternative sources.
Comprehending the complexities behind energy policy-making is a daunting task. A recently published book that attempts this, Daniel Yergin's The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, is 800 pages long and covers only the last 20 years. And some reviewers point out that this world-renowned expert's analyses are incomplete!
By focusing here on four themes—the paradox of abundance, the patterns of regulation, the transition decade of the 1970s, and the parameters of the long transition—we can untangle a few of the many complex strands that make up the history of energy policy in America. And that, I hope, will enable readers to conclude for themselves whether and how future energy needs will be met—or not.
Generally speaking, much of the economics and politics that shaped energy policy-making before the 1970s continue to influence the story. There is one major difference, however. The environmentalism that emerged in the 1970s has promoted multiple, new approaches to policy-making and ways of thinking about energy, including attempts to conserve energy, reduce pollution, and improve public health.