While Politicians Pander, Conservation Is Ignored

As the price of gasoline jiggles about and above the $3 line, there is cause for tepid rejoicing for some and glee for others. For Democratic politicians hoping to score big in November, there was glee—a lot more glee than sense. For those who are worried that nature may be about to take revenge on what humans have done to her, the higher the price of hydrocarbons, the more reason not for rejoicing exactly, but for hope that we can get the lunatics off the flight deck of the good ship Planet Earth.

When the price crossed the $3 threshold, Democratic hacks fought for microphones to denounce the oil companies and call for a windfall-profits tax, as they delight in calling this impost. The money from the tax will, if some of them get their way, be spent on research to find cheap alternative forms of energy. A lot of good that will do for people who must pay $60 to fill ’er up now.

How we are to distinguish a “windfall” profit from plain old profit has yet to be explained. I guess that a windfall profit is when you read about an oil-company C.E.O. making a billion bucks or some other outlandish figure. It’s a windfall profit if it makes you clench your fists or grind your teeth.

Windfall profit is like price gouging—something that President Bush tells us he will immediately put a stop to if he should run across it, which he has yet to do. The definition of both terms is a number. What number, you may ask? The number that makes you scream, “That’s too goddamn much!”

Such political huffage and puffage will be of scant assistance this summer to people hit by yet another killer heat wave and the increased price of air-conditioning. Windfall-profit taxes, no matter how defined, will not make the price at the pump go up or down.

The Republican approach is more varied but not more helpful. The President wants the Federal Trade Commission to look into the rumors of oil-company price collusion. An easier route to the truth about pricing hanky-panky would be to ask Vice President Cheney what went on in his secret meetings with the major oil-company executives. If the oil market has been rigged by the majors in violation of the Clayton Act, the deal was done in the White House.

Other Republican politicians are trumpeting a call for “energy independence.” They say it as though they were 1776 colonists demanding political independence, the implication being that we are being exploited by foreign energy despots (read: Ay-rabs) whom we must fight to get free of. America, home of the energy-free and the hydrocarbon-independent!

It doesn’t have much of a ring to it as a slogan, but the Republicans have been repeating it since Jimmy Carter left office. In the interval, they have controlled the government most of the time as, year by year, the dependency of the United States on foreign supplies, whether from tyrants or not, has grown.

The Republican answer to that sad fact is that we are in this fix because oil companies have not been allowed to drill in Alaska and in the national parks and seashores. Truth to tell, at the rate we use oil, Republican energy companies could drill a hole in every backyard in America and they would not come up with enough oil to satisfy the demand, which never stops growing.

Let us not forget the bipartisan backup solution: ethanol, a fuel additive that may or may not, depending on who’s talking, use more energy to make than it saves. In any event, it is so expensive to produce that, to make it, the farmers of Iowa get yet another subsidy. Doubtless, ethanol and other fuels manufactured from biomass, cooking oils and the perspiration generated by arm-waving politicians has a place—a small place—in the energy equation as of now.

Later, it may be more. Which thought conjures up a word invoked by all to take care of the problem: research. Who can argue with research, the cure-all? It was research that cured cancer, wasn’t it?

You never know in advance how or when research will pay you back with useful inventions. In a span of 10 years or so, researchers changed AIDS from being a death sentence to a chronic medical condition. On the other hand, 100 years of trying to come up with a true breakthrough in electric-battery technology has brought us only marginal gains. We are still unable to store significant amounts of electricity except at prohibitive cost.

In general, politicians of all stripes (except Al Gore) would have us believe that we can go on living as we did through the last century. They would have us believe that they can arrange things so it’s big cars, big houses and the devil take the hindmost forever. As the price of gasoline, natural gas and electricity moves higher and higher, it appears that the hindmost which the devil is sinking his teeth into belongs to us.

So thank heavens for the free market. We ignored the warnings and pleadings of our best scientists, but in the face of the market prices for energy, finally, some are listening to science and ignoring the last-ditch reactionaries who continue to insist that there is no such thing as global warming in the face of floods, droughts, killer heat waves, typhoons, bug infestations, the deaths of the animals we love dearest, obliterating hurricanes and God knows what new catastrophes waiting to be visited on an America that thinks it is not only divinely inspired but divinely protected.

Yet even as the prices soar and a wounded earth lashes back at its Homo sapiens, politicians will not entertain the idea of energy conservation. Such an easy and obvious step as reimposing the Carter-era 55 mile-per-hour speed limit isn’t mentioned. When they talk about conservation at all—which is almost never—they talk in terms of new tax deductions when they ought to be talking about imposing new taxes. How about a heavy energy-consumption tax on McMansions? With all the tax subsidies for conservation over the years, it is said that there are less than 15 energy-star-efficient high-rises in New York City.

Such a tax would be easy to administer: Any dwelling unit consuming more than a certain number of B.T.U.’s for heating or cooling could be hit with a tax amounting to three or four times the price of the excess energy used. The levy would be imposed in steps over five or 10 years to allow a little time to adjust to the dispensation. Similar kinds of taxes could be imposed on whole classes of machines that pour filth into the atmosphere and consume frightful amounts of fuel. Among those that come quickly to mind are lawnmowers, leaf blowers, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, campers, trailers, pickup trucks, mobile homes and the gas-hog limousines favored by politicians and kindred big shots. Note that nothing would be banned outright, but all these energy dinosaurs would be made so punishingly expensive that they will be as rare in the future as a truly energy-efficient automobile is today.

Am I pipedreaming? Yes, I am. To meet high gasoline prices, President Bush is waiving clean-air regulations to permit oil refiners to produce dirty gasoline. This is like watching somebody who has been diagnosed with emphysema step up from one pack a day to two.

The one and only President to tackle energy conservation as though he meant it was Jimmy Carter. In the generation since he left office, nothing has been done and, apparently nobody currently in office (or likely to be in office after next November) intends to do anything either.

The people who have passed through the nation’s schools since Mr. Carter’s days in the White House give every outward sign of considering saving the environment of extreme importance. Much good it does. Their concern and worry is inversely proportional to their influence on public policy.

If the same apparatus of churches, do-gooders, human-rightsers, bleeding-heart simpaticoes and big-money employers that was behind the immigration demonstrations took up energy conservation, the streets, parks and boulevards couldn’t contain the throngs. How about four million children and youths marching on Washington? Schoolkids know what’s in store for them by way of air to breathe and water to drink. It wouldn’t take that much to pull off something like that. You could almost do it through the P.T.A.’s and other kinds of parent associations. Fill Washington with a children’s crusade for life.

Or we can wait for the next catastrophic event. You know the choices: goodbye, Miami, or some 4,000 in St. Louis and 7,000 in Cincinnati perish in a record-breaking Midwest heat wave. Or would you prefer a big, fat flood?

Anything to get off the schneid. While Politicians Pander,  Conservation Is Ignored