Scientists Speak on Energy Crisis

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.


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, University of Stanford
Chang-Yu Wu, University of Florida
Elvin K. Wyly, Rutgers University
Jensen Zhang, Syracuse University

*Member of the National Academy of Sciences

Submitted for the group by

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