CMU forum tackles Gulf oil spill

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The disaster in the Gulf has been wide-reaching and will be felt for some time, panelists told a packed auditorium at CMU's University Center.

But now that the run-away well is plugged, experts can start searching for solutions -- and prevent similar spills from happening again.

Of course, finding solutions is never easy, said panelist Jeff Drury. He's an assistant professor of communication at CMU.

"Everyone's really willing to point fingers and to play this blame game," he said. "No one's really saying 'how can we get together and solve this problem?' And that's the first step to productive solutions. It's about coming together. It's what I teach in my debate classes, that debate's about finding the best solution, not about pointing fingers, not about winning, not about proving your point."

So what are some solutions, to prevent similar oil spills in the future?

The panelists all agreed on an obvious one -- cutting the nation's dependence on oil. But that's easier said than done, said CMU business student John Porter.

"At the end of the day... oil right now is probably one of our cheaper forms of energy," Porter said. "Everybody wants to complain about $2.85 at the gas pump, but honestly, there haven't been any alternatives brought about... more sustainable or a better price at the pump."

One way to ween the nation off of oil is to gradually raise the price of gas, said panelist Tom Rohrer. He's the director of the Great Lakes Center for Sustainable Systems at CMU.

"I was in Denmark and gasoline there is $8 a gallon," Rorher said. "That does two things. It encourages conservation. You drive small cars, not big trucks. You don't drive home every weekend if you're in college. You sort of conserve fuel. Also, it costs about $4 a gallon to deliver that product to the pump. The other $4 is paid in taxes, and the Danish government takes that tax money and puts it into light rail systems, alternative transportation, building bicycle lanes, putting in bus systems, coordinating all that transportation across the country so you can get off that airplane, take a train to a station, take a bus to where you need to go from there, and never have to even own a car."

Rohrer says the government might need to take a bigger role in researching and investing in cleaner, more efficient fuels. 

He said right now, companies have little incentive to research more efficient technologies because oil is so profitable.

"There are some people investing in alternative energy, but it's a very risky investment at this point," he said. "The return on investments are unknown. So they're going to stick with what they know. They're going to stick with what they know pays off. And as we have fewer and fewer fossil fuel resources remaining, the proven reserves that they have under control are going to be worth more and more."

The panelists seemed to be in agreement that a cultural shift is needed before the nation will move away from oil. 

"Until we have some sort of cultural shift in our thinking, we'll probably remain interested in cheap forms of energy," said event facilitator Ed Hinck, "despite the kinds of pollution or environmental risks or safety risks that might cause that."

"The problem is how do you get the citizens of the nation to figure out that energy independence is a good idea?" he said. "We need to figure out how to get to more sustainable form of energy production, and how do we manage those kinds of costs in ways that don't create huge economic dislocations in our lives right now?"

Those same questions are being asked across the country, whether on college campuses, around the dining room table or in committee rooms at the nation's capital.

The answers are often few and far between, but the general consensus is that it will be up to the generation just now coming of age to figure it all out.

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