We have an urgent national priority: moving forward with the development and demonstration of energy-efficient technologies that would enable America to burn fossil fuels more cleanly and cheaply.
With the outlook dimming for nuclear power and renewable energy sources, there are growing concerns that efforts to maintain air quality and combat global warming will fail as energy production increases in the years ahead.
Fossil fuels meet 84 percent of U.S. energy demand, and the Energy Information Administration forecasts they will continue to be the primary energy sources well into the future.
Despite the Obama administration's efforts to derail development of fossil fuels, energy companies are not backing off. Thanks to new technology and innovation, companies are tapping into vast domestic supplies of oil, natural gas and coal. And they are doing this without any new tax breaks or subsidies.
More than three-quarters of all energy tax breaks go to renewables such as solar and wind though they account for only 2 percent of electric power generation. For every megawatt produced by solar today, the subsidy amounts to $776. For wind, it's $56. For fossil fuels, it's 64 cents.
What will it take to deliver affordable energy while drastically slashing emissions?
Responsible people recognize that oil, natural gas and coal must provide a major share of the nation's fuel mix to avoid potentially devastating economic consequences. The key enabling technology for reducing carbon dioxide emissions in coal combustion and natural gas plants is increased efficiency of power generation, so that less coal or gas is burned per megawatt-hour generated.
While some efficiency technologies are commercially available, others such as ultra super-critical pulverized coal require continued research and development. Still, improved efficiency at an existing coal plant through the use of gasification-based technologies can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10 to 16 percent, and by 2025, new units could reduce emissions by as much as 30 percent or more.
Meanwhile, increased use of natural gas combined cycle power plants provides a low-cost, short-term opportunity to meet growing demand for electricity. Such plants can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 20 percent, with minimal additional capital investment in generation.
If America's fossil-fuel industry is to offer the world an opportunity to help meet the demand for affordable, cleaner energy in the decades ahead, it will need to do many things, few of which will be possible without better political leadership in Washington.
To maximize the value to the economy of fossil fuels, energy policies should be designed to create a level playing field, where all sources can compete against each other in an open marketplace. The government should not pick winners and losers, as the administration has done in heavily subsidizing wind and solar energy.
In today's world, smart government is a critical ingredient of technological progress. We need policies that will allow our nation to increase our production and use of fossil fuels. Imposing taxes and regulations on oil, gas and coal will not reduce costs, increase supply or achieve new advances in technology. Over the long term, the United States is going to need all its options, especially fossil fuels.
Peng holds the Charles E. Lawall Chair in Mining Engineering at West Virginia University.