A lip-service energy policy

We are rushing headlong into a real – and I mean real – energy crunch. Both political parties have got to consider different strategies.

Darren Bernard

Two months after passing the broadest oil, nuclear power and fuel efficiency legislation in United States history, the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress are back on the energy stump. With gas again nearing a $3 per gallon national average, oil refineries operating at breaking-point capacity, and a rapidly growing $120 billion annual oil trade deficit, lawmakers are suddenly realizing that extending daylight-saving time by a few weeks, well, may not have solved our titanic energy problems after all.

A product of half a decade of partisan bargaining, squabbling, and amendment trading, the 1,700-plus page Energy Policy Act of 2005 left energy experts noticeably uninspired. The director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, Gal Luft, summarized popular opinion by calling it, “the sum of all lobbies.” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said it was “just not serious” and had “no overarching strategy to deal with the new world.”

Even President George W. Bush soberly warned reporters after signing the legislation into law, “It’s going to take years of focused efforts to alleviate (energy) problems.”

What the act totes in size and weight, it lacks in real ambition. For one, the policy does not outline any new strategies for improving mass transit and, according to the American Council for an Energy-

Efficient Economy, is expected to make only marginal improvements in consumer household efficiencies. Somewhat more insidiously, ostensibly at the behest of the U.S. sugar industry, it carries only two small provisions for the use of very effective sugar-to-ethanol technologies that Brazil has developed.

Admittedly, the bill does carry a handful of bipartisan achievements, including tax credits for hybrid vehicle owners and several billion dollars for corn-based ethanol production, clean-coal research, the development of biomass as fuel, and consumer energy saving.

But despite all its hoopla, grants and cute provisions, the act fails to address the whole point of having a long-term energy strategy. The United States’ growing dependence on foreign energy resources has become our greatest liability in the new global economy, and Congress has not acted to increase domestic supply or cut overall demand.

In fact, when the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was being drawn up, the two provisions that could have weaned us from foreign oil were effectively tabled before they were even proposed.

It would surprise many Americans to know that one of these provisions – fuel efficiency requirements – has already existed in the United States for three decades. Since the oil embargo crippled U.S. transportation systems in the 1970s, major vehicle manufacturers have been obligated to maintain a set average fuel economy for their fleet of cars and trucks or face penalties from the federal government.

The problem is these penalties, though enforced against offenders, do not amount to much more than a slap on BMW’s gold-plated wrist.

What’s worse, despite the growth of new vehicle technologies, the average required fuel economy in the U.S. market has been inexplicably backsliding since the mid-1980s.

Even so, Congress has continued to reject fuel economy hikes on the grounds they would hurt car manufacturers. But with cars, sport utility vehicles, vans, and pickup trucks now accounting for 40 percent of U.S. oil consumption, it is hard to see how Republican leadership can keep a straight face when they complain about foreign oil dependence.

On the supply side, Democrats are to blame. Opening merely 0.1 percent of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska could eventually increase domestic oil supplies by 1 million barrels of oil per day – more than half of Hugo Chavez’s daily shipment.

Of course, the only reason ANWR has not been opened yet is because environmentalists say we risk upsetting a few caribou. In fact, drilling ANWR would not merely create thousands of new jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and provide education and other social services for locals; history shows it also would do little to disrupt the environment to any consequence.

Ever since the Prudhoe Bay region of northern Alaska saw the development of pipelines and oil fields in the 1970s, the caribou population has been – would you believe? – growing. Add that to the prevailing support of Alaskans and native Inuit to ANWR drilling and I think we have a new energy plan.

Whether we annoy a few deer in ANWR or not, the larger point is that Democrats and Republicans have failed to provide the United States with a serious energy policy because of special interests.

The result is an unacceptably shaky economy – one that, in fact, could soon get worse. Because with China, India and Eastern Europe continuing to soak up more and more oil demand, the Middle East self-destructing, and Venezuela gradually taking its business elsewhere, we are rushing headlong into a real – and I mean real – energy crunch.

But take note: By the time that energy crunch hits, it will already be too late.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]