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In the summer of 2008, at a time of widespread anger over historically high oil prices, Al Gore challenged his countrymen “to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within ten years.” This wildly ambitious goal recalled Richard Nixon’s proclamation, issued amid the 1973 global oil shock, that the United States would aim to become fully energy independent by 1980. It also brought to mind Jimmy Carter’s pledge, made during his famous 1979 “malaise” speech, that America would “never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977,” and would seek to cut its reliance on imported oil in half by 1990. For those keeping score, foreign oil accounted for 35 percent of U.S. consumption in 1973 — and 63 percent in 2009.

As University of Manitoba professor Vaclav Smil writes in his new book,Energy Myths and Realities, the various targets proposed by Nixon, Carter, and Gore collided with the harsh reality that “energy transitions are inherently prolonged affairs lasting decades, not years.” It was probably not until the late 1890s, he notes, that fossil fuels provided half of all global energy. While we commonly think of the 1900s as the “oil century,” oil did not become the world’s largest primary energy supplier until 1965; and during the 20th century as a whole, it contributed slightlyless energy than coal did.

“In global terms,” says Smil, “1800–1900 was still a part of the millennia-long wooden era, and 1900–2000 was (albeit by a small margin) the coal century.” Commercial oil production started in the 1860s, but it took roughly eight decades for the black stuff to gain even a quarter of the global primary energy market. As for the U.S. market, coal became America’s biggest primary energy supplier in 1885, Robert Bryce writes in Power Hungry, and it held that crown for 65 years. In the early 20th century, its domestic market share reached as high as 90 percent. Oil did not surpass coal as the top U.S. supplier until 1950; its rise was driven largely by the automobile revolution and military needs during World War II.

By 1958, natural gas had eclipsed coal to become America’s second-largest primary energy source, says Bryce, managing editor of the online journal Energy Tribune and a Manhattan Institute senior fellow. But then, regulatory interventions hindered its growth and gave new life to the U.S. coal industry. In recent years, coal demand has been soaring in China, India, and other developing countries. Smil points out that coal’s portion of the global primary energy market was higher in 2008 than it was in 1973. Over the next 20 years, those hoping for a decline in worldwide coal consumption will almost certainly be disappointed.

Just look at the International Energy Agency projections. In its latest “World Energy Outlook,” released in November 2009, the IEA estimated that, if government policies stayed constant, global demand for coal would increase by 53 percent between 2007 and 2030. Over the same period, coal’s share of global electricity generation would swell from 42 percent to 44 percent, while that of renewable fuels would go from 18 percent to 22 percent. Total energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions would jump by 40 percent, with coal-power emissions growing by 60 percent. Coal would still be “the dominant fuel of the power sector,” and fossil fuels generally would still be “the dominant sources of energy worldwide.”

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