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A new 'Manhattan Project'

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Thursday, June 19, 2008


A new 'Manhattan Project'
Energy crisis calls for effort, innovation

For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/19/08

I was intrigued by the essay last week by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson ("Time for bold action on energy, "@issue, June 13).

The beginning is remarkably candid and aware. There is no question in anyone's mind that the cost of all fossil fuels is crimping the economy and every pocketbook, be it government's or the general public's. The ensuing slowdown is being felt in all areas of the economy and is unlikely to get better any time soon.


And what a fresh thought that our political leaders would get off their respective soap boxes and unanimously agree that something must be done for the betterment of the country, not down the road, but immediately.

But then Isakson loses me. Further exploration and development of fossil fuel resources, solar and wind energy? Perhaps, but therein does not lie the answer.

These alternatives will only bandage the problem, not heal it. And while wind and solar power have already proven some merit, on an economy of scale, the sheer size and cost likely do not meet their output capabilities. And why develop more fossil fuel resources when this is the current problem we are facing?

The American economy is not built to function even on $2- or $3-a-gallon fuel, but we have managed thus far. While our economy and we as a people are resilient, I suspect that $4 gasoline will make our world dramatically different and likely more difficult than we are already experiencing. And we had better brace ourselves, because diesel is nearly at $5 and likely going higher. Gasoline is well above $4. Can you say $5 or even $6? There is every indication that the upward spiral in fuel prices is far from abating.

The cost of every part of our day-to-day world is already being affected, and will be further affected, as fuel prices increase. Food, clothing, transportation, heating and cooling. Everything. It has not even started yet.

It is becoming entirely apparent that the world is running out of oil, or more simply that demand is rapidly outstripping supply, and it is a supply that is diminishing. It is unlikely that we will be out of oil in 10 years, but 30 or 40 years from now, and you have to wonder if and when. And at what cost to an already reeling environment?

In the early days of World War II, it became entirely apparent that Hitler was working on developing nuclear fission, the end result likely being the catastrophic instrument known as the atomic bomb. Leaders of the United States, Britain and Canada put into motion the Manhattan Project, which was summarily created to understand the scientific ramifications and develop a bomb of our own. The rest is history.

One could easily argue that the threat of Hitler's bomb is not far off from the threat of sky-high fuel. The end result is similar, a complete disintegration of our social structure as we know it.

So rather than wasting money and resources on finding more fossil fuel--at great expense to the economy and further damage to the environment--let's put some real money to work and get another "Manhattan Project" up and running, this time for a simple solution to the energy crisis.

Would it be so difficult to bring in the greatest scientists from around the world and piggyback on extensive inroads that big business has already made in hydrogen fuel cells, electric cars and numerous other forms of alternative fuel? Can anyone even argue that we in America and likely the rest of the world would be on a clear and concise path to alternative energy within 10 years? We did it before, why not now?

While I would be honored to take credit for this brilliant and yet completely feasible idea, many others have voiced similar thoughts, including most recently Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York, with whom I spoke just last month.

And how ironic is the timing of this debate, when only this week Honda announced a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell automobile that is now in production and available to a limited number of drivers in California. While somewhat expensive to begin with, the $600-per-month leasing cost (which includes maintenance and collision coverage) is more than reasonable.

Honda is not the first. Already up and fully operational are other hydrogen-powered cars from many of the large automobile manufacturers. There are also functioning buses and small and medium-size trucks powered by hydrogen. Large trucks are supposedly very close to reality, as are airplanes and rockets. And let me remind you that 20 years ago, this sort of technology, very much like the Internet, was nothing but a dream.

The solution is within our grasp, should we choose to take it.

History provides wonderful insight. Could we possibly reinvent the Eisenhower interstate system in the form of a nationwide high-speed rail system like they have in Europe? Needless to say, it would be powered by electricity or hydrogen, fossil fuel being a thing of the past. Not only do we create a huge beneficial infrastructure, but we put likely hundreds of thousands of people to work. The economy desperately needs jobs and a base to support them.

And I do agree with Isakson that nuclear energy needs to be at the forefront of our development plans. The plants of today were built on technology of the 1960s and '70s. It is almost 2010, and things have changed a great deal.

And I further agree with Isakson that political leaders should act now. However, I am concerned that the current group of legislators will for the most part be replaced this fall due to the general public's utter dismay over their dismal performance. And in their stead will arrive an equally dismal group of replacements, and the swift and dramatic resolutions we need today will once again be put off for tomorrow.

> Tex Pitfield is president and CEO of Saraguay Petroleum, a fuel distribution company in Atlanta.



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Anthony C. "Tex" Pitfield was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. In 1962, his family moved to a working cattle ranch in southern Alberta, (just north of Montana), where he grew up in a cattle and equipment oriented lifestyle until his early (more...)

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