Only moments after the damning phrase left his lips, the President’s flacks and factotums were assuring anyone who had listened to his State of the Union address that he meant nothing when he declared that America is “addicted to oil.” His words meant nothing, they said, when he vowed to break that addiction with new sources of energy. He wasn’t even talking about foreign oil, they added, when he mentioned our problems with foreign oil.
The next day, newspapers reported sharp cuts in the budget of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where scientists seek to improve the efficiency of ethanol and other new sources of fuel promoted by the President in his speech. So perhaps his aides were right, and his remarks on this issue are subject to the usual discount.
That’s too bad, because Mr. Bush’s sermon about American oil dependency contained a higher quotient of truth than his typical utterances.
He rightly pointed out that, as a society, we need to reduce the use of imported oil while intensifying research into cleaner sources of fuel. We must change our ways not only for the geopolitical and economic reasons he discussed, but because, despite his skepticism, we cannot risk the catastrophic climate change that may ensue if the world continues to burn fossil fuels promiscuously. We have to change because our country is the most wasteful abuser of energy on this little planet, and because developing countries will soon burden the environment with their own carbon overload.
Where the President went wrong was in refusing to mention conservation—the most efficient means to reduce our waste of fuel—and his resistance to imposing significant fuel-economy improvements immediately. But then Mr. Bush is a lifetime captive of the oil-industrial complex. His personal and political fortunes have always depended on the generosity of oil investors and energy firms. (Remember Harken?) He could hardly be expected to attack their interests so directly.
Besides, their faithful servants surround him. His chief of staff, Andrew Card, formerly served as a Washington lobbyist for the automobile companies, where his greatest legacy was preserving the right of his employers to keep manufacturing gas-guzzling vehicles. His Vice President, Dick Cheney—a former oilman and convener of the secret energy task force—has consistently denigrated any attempt to curb the national appetite for oil.
Yet even if the President was serious about financing future technologies and reducing oil imports, it’s fair to ask why he and his fellow conservatives have taken so long to understand these national imperatives—and why they wasted so many years mocking liberals and environmentalists for seeking to implement them. Only recently have Republicans of the Bush ilk displayed any interest at all in reducing our oil addiction. (More often they are seen holding hands with Saudi royals.)
For as long as anyone can remember, the American right has insisted that we can solve all our energy problems with more drilling and mining. Melting ice caps, mercury in our children and despoiled wilderness were the symbols of our “progress.”
Meanwhile, the environmental movement and its progressive allies have demanded conservation, fuel-economy standards, and accelerated research into solar and alternative sources for more than three decades. Those demands culminated in an historic speech by Jimmy Carter, a President of character and independence.
Three months into his Presidency, Mr. Carter warned that America had reached the peak of domestic oil production—and that the continued doubling of oil consumption would no longer be sustainable. “We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren,” he said. “We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”
As Thom Hartmann, author of The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, has pointed out, the Carter address “established the strategic petroleum reserve, birthed the modern solar power industry, led to the insulation of millions of American homes, and established America’s first national energy policy.” If not for the courageous Carter, we would be still worse off today. During the years that followed, federal incentives and high energy prices induced serious conservation efforts throughout the industrialized world.
Much more could have been done since 1977, both in conservation and alternative-energy research. But the electoral defeat of Mr. Carter in 1980—ironically, due to the machinations of the same Iranian mullahs who threaten to cut off Western oil supplies today—put an end to his campaign. When Ronald Reagan and George Bush took over the White House for the following decade, they again placed oil interests in charge and abandoned the Carter initiatives.
As we finally face the bloody price of our profligacy, everyone wants clean power and energy security. How much more attainable those goals would be now if we had listened to the liberals then.