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File photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice of The New York Times / A new 67-megawatt solar farm north of Fresno, Calif., is shown in this March 27, 2020, photo.

It has long been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. By that definition, we're the ones detached from reality if we keep accepting what the oil industry and the green movement keep telling us over and over again and expecting a different result.

The greens keep saying that because the price of wind and solar is now as cheap as, or cheaper than, fossil fuels, they've won the energy war. Game, set, match — welcome to the green planet.

The oil companies say — as they have in each previous energy crisis since 1973 — that the only answer to this energy crisis is the one they've offered for the past 49 years: drill, baby, drill. Welcome to reality.

Well, they're both wrong, and accepting the repetition of either of these tired shibboleths is hurting us economically, environmentally and geopolitically — especially, of late, geopolitically.

Because our continued addiction to fossil fuels is bolstering Vladimir Putin's petrodictatorship and creating a situation where we in the West are — yes, say it with me now — funding both sides of the war. We fund our military aid to Ukraine with our tax dollars and some of America's allies fund Putin's military with purchases of his oil and gas exports.

And if that's not the definition of insanity, then I don't know what is.

Have no illusion — these sins of the green movement and the oil industry are not equal. The greens are trying to fix a real, planet-threatening problem. The oil and coal companies know that what they are doing is incompatible with a stable, healthy environment. Yes, they are right that without them there would be no global economy today. But unless they use their immense engineering talents to become energy companies, not just fossil fuel companies, there will be no livable economy tomorrow.

Let's look at both. For too long, too many in the green movement have treated the necessary and urgent shift we need to make from fossil fuels to renewable energy as though it were like flipping a switch — just get off oil, get off gasoline, get off coal and get off nuclear — and do it now, without having put in place the kind of transition mechanisms, clean energy sources and market incentives required to make such a massive shift in our energy system.

The most important delusion of the green movement today — of which I am a proud, if grouchy, member — is telling itself that because the price of wind and solar technology has fallen so low now that it can beat coal and natural gas in most markets, often even without subsidies, it's "game over" for fossil fuels. I wish. Price is only half the story.

If you can't install the transmission lines — to get that sun and wind power from the vast open spaces where it is generated to the big urban areas where it is needed — and if you cannot set aside more land to install the scale of solar and wind farms you need to replace coal, gas or nuclear, it doesn't matter that your renewables are cheaper on a per-kilowatt-hour basis.

And today transmission is a huge problem in the U.S. and Europe, where many people don't want wind farms, solar fields, electricity lines — or natural gas pipelines — in their backyard.

Meanwhile, ever since the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the big oil companies have basically said in each successive crisis: Sure, we need more clean energy, but you have to understand — it doesn't scale. Right now, we're in an emergency, so we just need to drill more.

The oil companies better be careful, though, because this time could be different, thanks to more consumers demanding electric cars and more industries being forced by consumers and employees to quickly decarbonize.

Both the greens and the browns need to get real: The greens need to up their deployment game. "That means tripling solar installation rates, roughly doubling long distance transmission lines, doing everything possible to accelerate the electric car transition and starting to roll out renewable hydrogen for industry," said Hal Harvey, chief executive of Energy Innovation, which helps companies and countries transition to clean fuels. And we need to do this rapidly and intelligently, "while protecting local ecosystems."

The fossil fuel companies, Harvey told me, "need to change their business model so that it is compatible with life on earth — while they still have a chance."

For those oil companies sitting on large natural gas deposits — which are needed in this transition because gas is cleaner than coal — it means tapping those deposits but doing so with zero methane leakage; otherwise gas becomes as bad as coal. But it also means thinking much more seriously about how fossil fuel companies truly make the transition to become "energy companies," not just oil companies.

The Stone Age, as they say, didn't end because we ran out of stones. And the oil age won't end because we run out of oil. It will end with millions of barrels still in the ground because we've made oil for transportation obsolete.

The serious oil companies will get ahead of that. The serious petrodictators will be taken down by it. We can't make it happen soon enough.

The New York Times

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