For 30 years or longer, American politicians and policymakers have known that our national appetite for cheap, polluting fossil fuels is unsustainable—as well as how that appetite continues to endanger the environment, the economy and national security. The “energy crisis” that came and went so long ago has now returned, with gas and oil prices again rising rapidly. And aside from the threat of increasingly costly resources controlled by unstable foreign regimes, we must cope with diminishing petroleum and planetary damage.
These are enormous problems that demand ambitious solutions. Yet the President and the Congressional leadership have ignored three decades of scientific advancement and policy analysis, and responded with the same feeble initiatives that have failed to improve matters since 1975.
Their manifest failure to cope with the new energy crisis didn’t discourage George W. Bush from congratulating himself and exaggerating the importance of the omnibus energy legislation he just signed in New Mexico. “I’m confident that one day Americans will look back on this bill as a vital step toward a more secure and more prosperous nation that is less dependent on foreign sources of energy,” he proclaimed.
Actually, Americans are more likely to look back on this forgettable episode as yet another missed opportunity for essential change—and to resent corporate pols like Mr. Bush, who brushed aside real solutions to perform favors for friends and contributors.
The priorities of these politicians can be summed up in the following intimately related facts: Gas and oil prices are reaching record levels, above $60 a barrel, with no relief in sight for years to come. Energy-industry profits are following the same upward trajectory, as ExxonMobil boasts second-quarter earnings over $7.5 billion, an increase of 32 percent; Conoco Phillips touts $3.1 billion for the same period, a 51 percent improvement; and Kerr-McGee heralds its own tripled earnings. To address this situation, in which suffering consumers are coughing up billions to swell the corporate bottom line, Mr. Bush’s “energy bill” gives additional billions in taxpayer subsidies to the oil, gas and nuclear interests.
Clearly the President (and the Vice President) feel that super-profits and the promise of ever-greater super-profits in the market aren’t enough to encourage investment by America’s patriotic energy companies. If our “way of life” is to continue, the Bush cronies must be paid from the federal treasury as well as the gas pump, where the current cost of filling up is no less than $50. They must also be allowed more latitude to pollute air and water, and less regulation of their propensity to gouge and manipulate the prices of gas and electricity.
To be sure, the energy bill provides consumers with certain subsidies, too, which are meant to promote advanced automobiles and other energy-efficient appliances and materials. For people who have any money left over after paying their fuel and electricity bills, those tax credits will surely encourage wiser purchases. Whether they will make any difference in our thirst for Saudi and Iraqi oil remains very much in doubt.
Sadly, we have observed this simulation of action on various earlier occasions: the logrolling, subsidizing and pampering of the energy industries, combined with incremental and mostly insignificant gestures toward renewable sources and conservation. We have also seen the obstinate rejection of higher auto fuel-efficiency standards, the mindless refusal to make sufficient investments in future technologies, and the generally stupid insistence on business as usual.
We know that the “energy bill” won’t work, because the same approach hasn’t worked before. What should be done instead is scarcely mysterious.
Among the most disappointing aspects of the 2004 Presidential election was John Kerry’s decision to abandon the visionary theme he articulated early in his campaign: our need for an “Apollo project” to create the new industries that would begin the world’s energy transition. The Massachusetts Senator was able to speak on those issues with unusual inspiration, clarity and urgency. There is no figure in either party who has since dared to talk frankly about the stark choices that our industrial civilization can no longer avoid.
From the beginning of the first “energy crisis” during the 1970’s, we have known that conservation is the most realistic alternative to ever-increasing oil prices and ever-greater dependence on dubious client regimes. After that episode, Americans sought to save energy in their cars and homes and factories, with considerable success, until oil prices temporarily declined.
We remain far from achieving the efficiencies of other developed countries. But if we are to sustain our society and avoid economic and environmental disaster, we will eventually have to do more with less—or expect war, scarcity and ecological decline to define our future.
With serious federal investment and real political will, an energy policy focused on conservation and new technologies could provide millions of jobs, revive heartland industries, reduce pollution and liberate our foreign policy. Americans are still waiting to hear from a leader with that much imagination and courage.