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Main Event: American Energy Policy

11.01.2001 | ENVIRONMENT

The smoke was still thick over Manhattan when the first jackals appeared. The world in shock, a motley crew of lobbyists and pundits crept toward the carcass of atrocity to pick at the meat and claim a piece of the spoils. With reality seemingly turned upside down, it was a fair assumption that there would be much up for grabs.

On the night of the 11th, all-purpose hawk Frank Gaffney Jr. was on television making the case that smuggled box-cutters and cockpit Judo proved the urgent need for a space based multi-layered missile defense system. The editors of The Weekly Standard and their friends in the Defense Department were dusting off their Iraqi invasion strategies before the second plane had crashed. Within days the airline industry had wheeled out a bailout plan and "emergency" wage-reduction schemes. On the left were heard nonsensical squeals about America's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, as if the terrorists were disillusioned Greenpeace activists. Piercing our private thoughts was this ugly cacophony of public voices seeking to forward old agendas in the new reality, hoping to cash-in on national trauma by connecting irrational acts of terror to their own rational plans for the future. Such opportunism was and is not only morally bankrupt, but also socially irresponsible, as it confuses the issues and impedes the daunting task of devising a broad and sober strategy to defeat terrorism.

Nowhere is the manipulation of September 11th more crass in its execution and backwards in its program than the current Republican effort to ram through its energy plan, a drive that follows a GOP pattern of using unrelated events to push its oil-industry driven agenda. The administration's energy proposals were outrageous and corrupt when first proposed, and make less sense now than they did then, if such a thing is possible. The reasons for this span from geopolitics to ecology, and together congeal into the central fact of the new century: how we choose to answer the Energy question will determine nothing less than the destiny of modern civilization.

Energy Past, Energy Present

The human race has just completed the first high-energy century in history, and its accomplishments were significant. Crop productivity shot up more than fourfold with the massive increase is fossil fuels and electricity used in agriculture. Longer and healthier average lives can also be linked to better nutrition and medical advances that depend on energy, including everything from food pasteurization to vaccine refrigeration. The current unprecedented mobility in people, goods and information is also dependent on energy created by fossil fuels. Unless you live in a hut and take principled stands against penicillin, there is simply no disputing the long-term benefits of the dirty Industrial Revolution its technological spawn.

But uncritical hymns to the miracles of energy-driven growth are anachronisms. Although success has done much to inflate modern man's hubris in his conquest of nature, it is now apparent that he cannot continue with the same tools or the same abandon as in the 20th century. Doing so now risks undoing all of our gains. This is so for two fundamental reasons, both long established but gaining new clarity and force with each passing day.

First, we are using energy much faster than we are replacing it with new reserves. Fossil fuels are finite resources. The world is currently consuming four times more oil than it is finding, and the gap will increase exponentially in the coming years as demand and supply run in opposite directions. Thus the current fossil fuel driven world economy just can't be sustained, even if it were desirable that it should. Sober and respected energy analysts like Mamdouh G. Salameh expect chronic shortages of oil to develop as early as 2010.

The second reason why we "can't" maintain the status quo is less easy to predict with pinpoint accuracy, but still rooted in science. As surely as we are running out of oil, so too are we increasing the amount of carbon gasses in the atmosphere and raising the earth's temperature. It is impossible to gauge the exact consequences of this, but there is a consensus that the effect will be a qualitative change, of a degree dependent upon current and future emissions. This temperature change will most likely have severe effects on every aspect of life on earth; it is hard to imagine that any of them will be good.

These would seem two unanswerable arguments against continuing down the path that served us so well in the last century. What could be more compelling than these two declarative statements? 1) It is technically impossible for us to continue indefinitely, and 2) even if we could it would kill us. Threatened by this double-whammy, the US government--representing the world's largest economy and hence the largest possible engine for change--has a choice. It can dig into a fantasy world in which the status-quo is permanently maintained through a combination of supply-side policies, increasingly perilous games of geopolitical chess, and rapid environmental degradation, or it can tap the huge potential of demand-side manipulation, throw massive resources into the development of sustainable sources of energy and begin to lessen the world's growing dependence on diminishing reserves of Middle East and--coming soon to a nightmare near you--Central Asian oil. It is a choice between willfully ignorant and enlightened leadership; between representing your colleagues in the oil business and representing the human race.

Famously, the Bush Administration has chosen the first of these and is following it to a pathological extreme. It is common knowledge that this administration is in the well-lined pockets of the oil industry, but the depth and baseness of these connections are breathtaking and bear constant repeating over the public megaphone. The President, like his father, is a proud Texas oilman; his National Security Advisor sat on a major oil board and has a Chevron oil tanker in her name; the Vice President was CEO of one of the world's largest energy services company months before assuming office. In fact, the speech Dick Cheney gave last March outlining the Bush energy plan could have been lifted in parts from a speech he gave in 1999 to the London branch of the Institute of Petroleum, an industry group that included Cheney on its board of directors until last year. Cheney is the driving creative force behind the Administration's energy policy, and his "coming out" speech of March 2001 shed a harsh light on what we should have already known.

In his speech, Cheney called for more exploration and drilling and summarily dismissed the idea that conservation could be a significant pillar in a coherent energy program. In a memorable and revealing line, he mocked belief in the potential of both conservation and efficiency as "70s era thinking." The widespread employment of alternative energy sources was downplayed as unfeasible, and funding for their development was slashed to make sure it doesn't become feasible anytime soon. It is hard to disagree with Ralph Nader that the Cheney proposals prove the Bush team consists of "dinosaurs living in the age of mammals." The speech and the subsequent plan aren't surprising, yet somehow shock all the same. If the dinosaurs hold the reigns of power, then the rest of us are forced to live in a world of their creation. And if we must wait for a meteor to make the dinosaurs extinct, let us pray that it comes soon.

Your Solar Panels Or Mine?

But what exactly was this "70s era thinking" so scorned by Dick Cheney? Was it a naïve Jimmy Carter kindly screwing lifetime warrantee light bulbs into the Oval Office? Was it just a bunch of squishy academics and aging lifestyle hippies listening to lectures about how "Small is Beautiful" in quaint Vermont town halls?

Hardly. While it is true that part of what Cheney refers to had a soft "values" and even a spiritual element, "70s era thinking" was mostly a hard boiled revolution in policy at the highest levels of government that bore some incredible results in strengthening US energy security. Along with 70s era ecological and humanist critiques of consumer society and pollution, there were also serious economic and political cases being made--and won--in favor of weaning the US from a finite and unpredictable source of energy. And they weren't triggered by the published output of best-selling doomsday environmentalists or Indian gurus, either. They were careful and well-reasoned responses to the oil shocks of the 1970s--oil shocks not unlike the ones we will be facing in the near future.

The two major shocks of the mid and late 1970s not only led to the creation of the nation's strategic reserve, but also dramatically reduced city pollution and America's dependence on Middle East oil. Fuel efficiency standards put in place during the paisley decade more than doubled the number of miles American cars got to the gallon, while Carter's conservation efforts helped swing the global oil market back towards America's favor. The very efforts now mocked by Bush/Cheney were bearing remarkable fruits before being crushed by the Neolithic Reaganites in the 1980s. Writing in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, energy analysts Amory and Hunter Lovins drop the following numbers, which deserve a slow and careful reading:

Carter's policies made new American-built cars more efficient by seven miles per gallon over six years. During Carter's term and the five years following it, oil imports from the unstable Persian Gulf region fell by 87 percent. From 1977 to 1985, U.S. GDP rose 27 percent while total U.S. imports fell by 42 percent, or 3.74 million barrels per day...If the United States had continued to conserve oil at the same rate that it did in 1976--1985 or had simply bought new cars that got 5 mpg more than they did, it would no longer had needed Persian Gulf oil after 1985. Instead, policy in the 1980s discourages energy efficiency, which was officially characterized as an intrusive, interventionist burden of curtailment and sacrifice...U.S. oil imports crept back up in the 1980s, spurred by low prices, abundant supplies, corporate inattention, and policy neglect. If the first Bush Administration had required in 1991 that the average car get 32 mpg, that measure alone would have displaced all Persian Gulf oil imports to the United States. Instead, [we] fought a war that deployed tanks moving at .56 mpg and aircraft carriers moving at 17 feet per gallon.

Three cheers for 80s era thinking! The authors, who run the market-oriented Rocky Mountain Institute, conclude that if the costs of the war had been invested in efficiency technology, we wouldn't have had to fight it in the first place. It's enough to make you slam your head against a flagpole over and over again.

When one factors the necessity of using force to protect distant oil in the Gulf, the diminishing return of enormous outlays of national wealth, the increasing promise of alternative energy sources such as hydrogen, and the growing peril of climate change, one cannot possibly conclude that the Bush plan represents US national interests, in either the long or the short term. What it does represent is the massive power of oil companies and their will to cling to the current system, even if it means dragging us all down with them. Going after a shrinking amount of oil in the world's trouble spots with a growing number of major competitors (including an oil thirsty modernizing China) will bring unneeded conflict abroad and leave us unprepared for the total depletion of oil reserves when it does arrive. Whether a few small drops in Alaska or a few big drops in Kazakhstan, no amount of oil currently available to the big energy firms will significantly delay this reality enough to matter. We will soon have to both manipulate demand and prepare alternative sources. What are we waiting for?

Future Shock

Over the last decade, energy consumption rose between 15 and 25 percent in the countries of the developed world. This trend will continue. Most dramatically, China is set for explosive growth in its energy needs, and will propel global primary energy consumption, which is expected to see a 50 percent increase by 2020. During this same period, the Middle East will begin a rapid downward slide in its total capacity, increasingly both the power and instability of the OPEC nations. If western countries do not begin in haste to diversify their energy portfolio, it does not require a long stretch of the imagination to envision a nightmare scenario in which climate change induced disruptions in agriculture lead to resource wars amidst major power clashes over the last remaining supplies of oil in the explosive regions of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Even if this worst-case scenario does not come to pass, there is no denying that we are in for a rough ride. Our entire society is dependent upon a dwindling resource that also threatens to undermine the earth's climate. Due to the aforementioned policy neglect, alternative sources of energy are not yet capable of filling a role of the size needed. Until they are, our consumption of oil should be limited as much as possible through conservation and efficiency efforts--exactly the kind of efforts that worked so well in the 1970s and currently shunned by today's US "leadership." Any rational and forward thinking energy policy for the next decade would emulate the Nixon Administration's "Project Independence," which aimed to make the US energy self-sufficient by the 1980s. It fell short, but did much good in the process. Even if climate change turns out to be benign, and even if abundant new sources of oil are located in the Western Hemisphere--both highly unlikely--such action would be what public policy people call "no-regret." That is, considerable benefits exist even if the risk assessments behind the policy turn out to be wrong. Limiting emissions and forcing new technologies onto the market place would diminish photochemical smog that lowers crop yields, boost the economy, and lessen US entanglements in geopolitical hornet nests.

The Bush Administration is currently pursuing a multi-billion dollar missile-defense system based on "no regret" policy assumptions ("better safe than sorry"), but refuses to put the same foresight into its energy plan, even though the risks are arguably much greater and the solutions more likely to succeed. This lack of a contingency plan with regard to the coming oil crisis and climate change is a crime against the American people and the world. Unfortunately, turning this state of affairs around while the current Administration holds power will not be easy. Even though a recent Time/CNN poll shows finds that 75% of the American people think global warming is a "very serious" problem, only 48% said they would support paying 25 cents more per gallon to fix it. The Republican Party is not likely to push the issue, seeing any economic sacrifice in protecting the environment as "negotiating away the American way of life, " and hence out of the question. Nor is this Administration likely to pass any costs on to industry, as even the Clinton/Gore New Democrats could only bring themselves to implement a "partnership" (read: "handout") with the auto industry in a bid to raise fuel efficiency.

Pressure, as always, must come from below. And it must come hard. The Bush energy plan, as well as the interests and ideas it represents, must be routed by a sustained campaign of public education and activism. The alternative really is almost too depressing to contemplate.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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