Scientists for a Sustainable Energy Future

Following is an open letter to the American public about the nation's energy future. The letter is from Scientists for a Sustainable Energy Future, a group of natural and social scientists who study the connections among energy, the environment, and society, and who are concerned with the direction of the nation's energy policy. The letter has more than 250 signatories, including members of the National Academy of Sciences and many of the nation's foremost experts on these subjects.

Cutler J. Cleveland
Professor and Director
Center for Energy and Environmental Studies
Boston University

Scientists for a Sustainable Energy Future

An Open Letter to the American People

May 18, 2001

Dear Fellow Citizens,

We are natural and social scientists who study the connections among energy, the environment, and society. We write to you out of grave concern with the turn the nation's energy policy has taken. Decisions taken today about the supply and use of energy have far reaching implications for our economic prosperity and for the health of our environment. Since the first "energy crisis" almost thirty years ago, a large body of research in the nation's universities, national laboratories, think tanks, and private sector has produced large advances in our understanding of energy issues. We would like to share some of this information with you because the current direction of the nation's energy policy is inconsistent with much of this work.

Conventional forms of energy have grabbed the policy spotlight in recent months, but this emphasis is misplaced, and, ultimately, counterproductive. We produce slightly less than half of the oil we consume; by 2020 we will produce just 35 percent. Can a policy to encourage domestic oil extraction reduce dependence on imported oil and maintain the price of gasoline and home heating oil at reasonable levels? The simple answer is no, because the domestic oil resource base is depleted to the extent that large investments in drilling cannot generate a commensurate increase in oil supply. Extraction and proven reserves of oil have dropped considerably since their peaks in 1970 despite a massive drilling campaign in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Because domestic oil sources are more costly than overseas alternatives, incentives to encourage exploration and development will hurt the economy in the same way they did 20 years ago when the oil price shocks produced record rates of drilling. A large diversion of capital investment and profits to the oil industry ensued, but oil extraction continued to decline, as it has to this day. There is every reason to believe that the same scenario will play out if political decisions are made to promote domestic extraction.

Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration will not improve our energy security, nor will it have any impact on the price of gasoline. The economically recoverable amount of oil in the Refuge is just 152 days of supply for the nation. More importantly, if we started drilling in the Refuge today, the Department of Energy projects that by 2020 it could supply 1.4 million barrels per day. By then world oil production will be in the range of 100 million barrels per day. The Refuge would amount to about 1 percent of global oil supply, and thus have a trivial influence on the ability of oil exporters to influence prices.

Nuclear power faces formidable obstacles. Experience of the last several decades has shown that electricity from nuclear power plants is an expensive form of power when all public and private costs are considered. Nuclear power generates high level radioactive wastes that remain hazardous for thousands of years and increase the likelihood of nuclear weapons proliferation. These are high costs to impose on future generations. Even with improved reactor design, the safety of nuclear plants remains an important concern. Can these technological, economic, environmental, and public safety problems be overcome? This remains an open question. Further public support to help resolve these issues should not come at the expense of an aggressive campaign to develop energy conservation and renewable energy sources.

Conservation must be front and center in our energy future. Unfortunately, energy conservation is painted as a return to the Stone Age, conjuring images of people huddling in the cold of their living rooms in front of lifeless TVs. But in reality, just the opposite is the case. In the last twenty years some of the country's best scientists and engineers have produced great innovations in the efficient use of energy. Cars that get 70 or more miles per gallon, appliances that use half the energy they did ten years ago, lighting fixtures that last for years at a fraction of the energy cost, and new homes that heat and cool with modest amounts of energy are proven winners in energy and economic terms. Just a 3 mile-per-gallon increase in the fuel efficiency of SUVs alone would reduce U.S. oil consumption more than the entire Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could supply. A study by five national laboratories concluded that a government-led efficiency program emphasizing research and incentives to adopt new technologies could reduce the growth in electricity demand by as much 47 percent. This would drastically reduce our need to build new power plants.

Many forms of renewable energy have enjoyed equally impressive advances. The cost of electricity from wind turbines and photovoltaics has plummeted in the last two decades, making power from these systems increasingly cost-competitive with conventional sources in some regions of the country. Compared to oil and coal, renewable energy produces small amounts of the pollutants that presently impair the health of people, degrade our lakes and forests, lower crop yields, and damage buildings, bridges, and other structures. Most notable is their near absence of greenhouse gases, pollutants that contribute to climate change.

On the subject of climate change, a lot of misinformation has obscured the scientific research. We want you to know these important and irrefutable facts. The overwhelming majority of scientists who study climate change have concluded that (1) the Earth is warming much faster than it has in previous centuries for which we can measure temperature change, and (2) human use of energy produces most of the greenhouse gases that contribute to this warming. In other words, climate change is real and directly related to present patterns of energy consumption. The costs of adjusting to a warmer world could be large and unpredictable, and they would be disproportionately borne by the poorer nations. Energy use in American homes, cars and factories has been a large source of greenhouse gases. We believe that this places a burden on the U.S. to lead the international effort to curb the release of these pollutants. Instead we have done just the opposite, thumbing our nose at the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, we are now viewed internationally as an environmental pariah. The U.S. must face its responsibility by engaging the international community on the climate change issue, and by reducing our emission of greenhouse gases. This means more energy from natural gas, renewable hydrogen and geothermal sources, and less coal and oil. Above all it calls for an accelerated development and adoption of energy conservation and renewable technologies. We also must lead the effort to help less fortunate nations find and fund the path of development that improves their quality of life with minimal de-stabilization of the Earth's climate.

There has been a lot of talk in Washington about the need for renewables and conservation, but action seriously lags behind the rhetoric. The budget submitted to Congress last month calls for a large cut in funding for these technologies while proposing greater incentives for conventional fuels. This would speed us in the direction opposite from one that would improve our energy security, reduce pollution, help stabilize the Earth's climate, and maximize our economic flexibility. We urge you to join us in the campaign for a sensible and sustainable energy future.


*Member of the National Academy of Sciences

David Ackerly Stanford University Julian Agyeman Tufts University Mowafak Al-Jassim The National Renewable Energy Laboratory Gerard Alleng University of Delaware Bill Anderson Boston University Clinton J. Andrews Rutgers University James R. Appleby, Jr. Edward Arens Jelle Atema Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole Gobind H. Atmaram Florida Solar Energy Center Robert Ayres INSEAD, France Irisita Azary California State University John A. Baker Clark University Carol Barford University of Wisconsin-Madison Richard Bawden Michigan State University Tim Beach Georgetown University David Beal Florida Solar Energy Center Linda R. Berg St. Petersburg Junior College Alan R. Berkowitz Institute of Ecosystem Studies Jon R. Biemer Bonneville Power Administration Steven M. Block Stanford University R. Gordon Bloomquist Washington State University John J. Boland The Johns Hopkins University Roger E. Bolton Williams College Stephen M. Born University of Wisconsin, Madison Abhijeet Borole University of Tennessee, Knoxville James K. Boyce University of Massachusetts, Amherst Allison Breeze The National Renewable Energy Laboratory Daniel A. Bronstein Michigan State University Tommy L. Brown Cornell University Halina Brown Clark University Mark T. Brown University of Florida Louis L. Bucciarelli Massachusetts Institute of Technology Frederick H. Buttel University of Wisconsin John Byrne University of Delaware C. Ronald Carroll University of Georgia James E. Christensen The Ohio State University Jeffrey E. Christian Richard W. Clapp Boston University School of Public Health Cutler J. Cleveland Boston University Robert S. Cole The Evergreen State College David C. Coleman University of Georgia Kerry H. Cook Cornell University Robert Costanza University of Maryland Martine Culty Georgetown University James B. Cummings Florida Solar Energy Center Gretchen C. Daily Stanford University Herman E. Daly University of Maryland Roger Dargaville Ecoystem Dynamics and the Atmosphere Brynhildur Davidsdottir Boston University Graham A. Davis Colorado School of Mines *Margaret B. Davis University of Minnesota Thomas Detwyler University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Raymond De Young University of Michigan Neelkanth G. Dhere University of Central Florida John G. Douglass Washington State University Myrna Dubroff Florida Solar Energy Center Murray Duffin *Paul R. Ehrlich Stanford University Salah El Serafy Energy and Environmental Consultant Randy Ellingson Solar Energy Research Scientist Jacque (Jody) Emel Clark University Richard W. England University of New Hampshire, Durham Donald J. Epp Pennsyvania State University Howard Epstein University of Virginia Paul Epstein Harvard Medical School Ronald C. Faas Washington State University Brian Farhi Florida Solar Energy Center Suzanne Ferrerre The National Renewable Energy Laboratory Kurt Finsterbusch University of Maryland Jon Foley University of Wisconsin-Madison Louise Fortmann University of California, Berkeley Rosanne W. Fortner The Ohio State University David R. Foster Harvard University Laurie Fowler University of Georgia Douglas I. Foy The Conservation Law Foundation Mark Friedl Boston University Andrew J. Friedland Dartmouth College Dennis Galvan University of Florida Jacqueline Geoghegan Clark University Brian Gibson University of Toronto James W. Gillett Cornell University Helen W. Gjessing University of the Virgin Islands Thomas N. Gladwin University of Michigan Peter H. Gleick Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security Joseph Graziano Columbia University Charles H. Greene Cornell University Hugh Gusterson Massachusetts Institute of Technology Winnie Hallwachs University of Pennsylvania Philip C. Hanawalt Stanford University Bruce Hannon University of Illinois Jonathan M. Harris Tufts University John Harte University of Berkeley, California Steven B. Hawthorne University of North Dakota Joe E. Heimlich The Ohio State University Robert A. Herendeen University of Illinois Steven M. Hoffman University of St. Paul Andrew Hoffman Boston University Chris Hohenemser Clark University Briavel Holcomb Rutgers University C.S. Holling University of Florida William L. Hoover Purdue University Robert M. Hordon Rutgers University James F. Hornig Dartmouth College Richard B. Howarth Environmental Studies Program Robert W. Howarth Environmental Defense Peter Howie Colorado School of Mines Phillip Hutton H. Patricia Hynes Boston University School of Public Health David Jaber Stan Jacobs Columbia University *Daniel H. Janzen University of Pennsylvania Sheila Jasanoff Harvard University J. Scott Jiusto Clark University Scott A. Jones Sandia National Laboratory Gary Jorgensen The National Renewable Energy Laboratory Raymond A. Jussaume, Jr. Washington State University Peter Kakela Michigan State University Daniel M. Kammen University of California, Berkeley Robert K. Kaufmann Boston University Jay Keller Sandia National Laboratory Cheryl Kennedy Robert O. Keohane Duke University Gregory A. Keoleian University of Michigan J. Daniel Khazzoom San Jose State University Patrick L. Kinney Columbia University Paul H. Kirshen Tufts University S.A. Klein University of Wisconsin-Madison C. Gregory Knight Pennsylvania State University Barbara A. Knuth Cornell University Michael Kuby Arizona State University Thomas Kunz Boston University Robert W. Lake Rutgers University Janelle M. Larson Pennsylvania State University, Berks Campus Warren Leon Northeast Sustainable Energy Association *Simon Levin Princeton University Stephen H. Levine Tufts University Lois Levitan Cornell University Karin Limburg SUNY College of Environment and Forestry Clovis A. Linkous University of Central Florida William Lockeretz Tufts University George Loisos Loisos/Ubbelohde Architecture Gary M. Lovett Institute of Ecosystem Studies George Lowenstein Carnegie Mellon University Doug Luckerman Environmental Lawyer A.E. Luloff Pennsylvania State University John W. Lund Geothermal Resources Council Loren Lutzenhiser The Washington State University Allison Macfarlane Massachusetts Institute of Technology Jean MacGregor The Evergreen State College Janet Mann Georgetown University Jack Manno SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry Barbara L. Martin Leo Marx Massachusetts Institute of Technology Gil Masters Stanford University Nancy Irwin Maxwell Boston University School of Public Health Dennis McCarthy University of Tennessee, Knoxville Brent H. McCown University of Wisconsin-Madison Gary McCracken University of Tennessee J. Marc McGinnes University of California, Santa Barbara Jon McGowan University of Massachusetts, Amherst Janet McIlvaine Florida Solar Energy Center Margaret McKean Duke University Diane K. McLaughlin The Pennsylvania State University J.R. McNeill Georgetown University David Menicucci Sandia National Laboratory Kathleen A. Miller National Center for Atmospheric Research James K. Mitchell Rutgers University Scott C. Mohr Boston University Bill Moore Journalist Alan Mountjoy-Venning The Washington State University Patricia Muir Oregon State University Blake C. Myers University of California Adil Najam Boston University Lisa Naughton University of Wisconsin Richard B. Norgaard University of California, Berkeley Susan O'Hara Dara O'Rourke Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ray Oglesby Cornell University David Orr Oberlin College Leonard Ortolano Staford University Richard S. Ostfeld Brandon Owens David Ozonoff Boston University School of Public Health Danny S. Parker Florida Solar Energy Center Mike Pasqualetti Arizona State University Anthony Patt Boston University Bernard C. Patten University of Georgia Rob Penney Washington State University John H. Perkins The Evergreen State College Thomas Perreault Syracuse University Noel Perrin Dartmouth College Jeanne E. Peters John E. Petersen Oberlin College Anna Peterson University of Florida Michelle D. Peterson University of the Virgin Islands Robert Gilmore Pontius, Jr. Clark University Theodore M. Porter UCLA Rich Prill Washington State University Stephen A. Prosterman University of the Virgin Islands H. Ronald Pulliam University of Georgia Catherine A. Ramus University of California, Santa Barbara Paul Raskin Tellus Institute Kal Raustiala UCLA Gary Ray University of the Virgin Islands A. Lynn Roberts The Johns Hopkins University Mark C. Roberts Michigan Technological University Chris Robertson Chris Robertson and Associates Jeff Romm University of California, Berkeley Eugene A. Rosa Washington State University Armin Rosencrantz Stanford University *Vernon Ruttan University of Minnesota Francisca Saavedra University of Maryland Guido D. Salvucci Massachusetts Institute of Technology Joseph Sarkis Clark University John Scahill Laura Schleyer Stephen H. Schneider Stanford University Christopher J. Schneider Boston University Karen C. Seto Stanford University Chandra Shah Howard N. Shapiro Iowa State University Richard Shaten University of Wisconsin-Madison Sherri Shields Florida Solar Energy Center Peter Skinner Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Andy Smith Boston University Chris Sneddon Dartmouth College Barry Solomon Michigan Technological University George Somero Stanford University John Spiesberger University of Pennsylvania Stan Springer Environmental Engineer Andrew Stainback University of Florida John Sterman Massachusetts Institute of Technology Alan Strahler Boston University Mary Swanson University of Tennessee, Knoxville Richard Sylves University of Delaware Jennifer Szaro Florida Solar Energy Center Ali T-Raissi University of Central Florida Joel A. Tarr Carnegie Mellon University Paul Templet Louisiana State University Tom Tietenberg Colby College Edward Tracy The National Renewable Energy Laboratory Richard P. Turco University of California, Los Angeles Brad Turk Mountain West Technical Associates, Inc M. Susan Ubbelohde University of California, Berkeley Richard R. Vance University of California, Los Angeles Francis M. Vanek Sustainable Technology and Energy Institute Otto VanGeet The National Renewable Energy Laboratory Mary Emma Wagner University of Pennsylvania Andy Walker Robert L. Walko Rutgers University Donald M. Waller University of Wisconsin-Madison Young-Doo Wang University of Delaware Paul Wapner American University Kenneth J. Warn Union of Concerned Scientists Robert P. Weller Boston University *Gilbert White University of Colorado Arthur M. Winer University of California, Los Angeles *Julian Wolpert Princeton University Jane Woodward Stanford University Chang-Yu Wu University of Florida Elvin K. Wyly Rutgers University Jensen Zhang Syracuse University