CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With its ambitious plans for promoting energy efficiency and expanding the use of renewable energy sources in the fight against global warming, the Obama administration has climbed aboard the biggest bandwagon in energy policy. But the idea that a modern economy can forgo the use of fossil fuels and nuclear power because a combination of conservation and "clean" energy sources can take their place is absurd.
There are legitimate reasons to be worried about climate change. Global energy consumption is so great and rising so fast that human activities are linked to climate change. Sea levels are rising, storms are becoming more frequent and stronger, and large parts of the United States and other countries are now subject to extreme drought, resulting in less food production.
But the fundamental question is not how we can expand the use of solar and wind energy while increasing its efficient use. The question is how much we're willing to do to ensure that Americans -- and billions of people throughout the world -- have affordable access to oil, natural gas and coal as well as nuclear power.
Reducing the consumption of energy would help control greenhouse-gas emissions. But that's not likely to be sufficient to solve the problem. Nor will replacing fossil fuels with alternative sources of energy like solar and wind, which are too impractical to be used for supplying base-load electricity on a large scale. Modern economies are thus bound to remain dependent on fossil fuels, which account for about 80 percent of the world's primary energy use.
An important technology has emerged that offers a way to capitalize on fossil fuels, coal in particular. Called "carbon sequestration," it is a way to capture carbon emissions from coal combustion and store them deep underground in geological formations and depleted oil and gas wells. China, India and other countries with fast-growing economies understandably want to use their vast coal resources for industrialization and to bring electricity to billions of people in rural areas who still do not have access to a power grid. But most countries with a lot of coal are not going to stop using it because of concerns about global warming.
With the right incentives and access to technology, however, sequestration can be made attractive so that key countries like China and India would back its use. But the leadership in developing and demonstrating the technology will have to come from the United States. We were the first country to crack down on smoking, require seat belts in cars, and adopt clean air regulations for airborne emissions that cause acid rain and ozone smog. Almost every industrialized country and many developing countries have followed our example. The logic seems unassailable: demonstrate the technology for carbon sequestration and other countries will follow suit, because carbon capture-and-storage may be the only realistic way to satisfy the world's enormous energy needs while lessening their side effects.
And instead of letting nuclear power slip away, we need to recognize that nuclear reactors have been overwhelmingly good for energy production and the environment. Nuclear reactors produce a huge amount of energy in the foreseeable future from a small amount of fuel. They have been good for our country.
For something as vital as energy production, we need federal policies that can help meet our national security and economic aspirations. If the government imposed an affordable price on carbon emissions from the production and use of energy, some of the revenue could be used to develop and demonstrate technologies for carbon sequestration and advanced nuclear power. Such technologies could help revive sagging manufacturing industries in the United States and provide a significant export.
It is essential that the United States maintain its technological leadership on the energy front. Developing new advances in clean coal and nuclear systems would provide an energy solution to the global warming problem and it would help ensure that we can maintain a livable environment.
Peng is the Charles E. Lawall Chair in Mining Engineering Emeritus at West Virginia University.