President Obama's new plan to combat climate change makes much of energy efficiency, which is a much more popular way to go than advocating a lifestyle change (political suicide) or less gridlock-inducing than a carbon tax (the fastest way to effect lifestyle change). Instead, Mr. Obama chose to highlight the EPA's tightened fuel efficiency requirements for new cars (CAFE), and upcoming efficiency standards for appliances and building construction.
These are all steps in the right direction, but the president was vague on the approval or not of the Keystone XL, the pipeline that is to transport bitumen from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico for refining. The controversy around the Keystone XL pipeline tends to centre around the environmental risk, job creation and US energy independence.
It seem foolhardy to rip out boreal forest, dig a 10-mile gash in the surface of the planet, and cart it all off, risking highly toxic spills through fragile environments (the original Keystone pipeline had more than thirty spills in its first year), only to sell the oil on the world market. On top of all that, tar sands have terrible energy efficiency.
The days of gusher oil wells, where all you have to do is drill into the ground at the right place (not very deeply), and oil comes bursting out, are long gone. These days you have to spend energy to get energy: you need to drill deep, or sideways, or you need to pump the oil out, or carefully inject water to keep the pressure up. Hydraulic fracturing of shale takes immense amounts of both energy and water. The sun and the wind come to us for free, but harvesting their energy takes the building of wind turbines and photovoltaic cells, and that takes energy.
So the question we need to ask is, how much energy does it take to get one usable unit of energy from the various sources in our reach?