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Energy Independence Day | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Energy Independence Day

George Bush won't ask Congress for permission for torture or domestic spying. But when it comes to energy policy – he is very, very concerned about the limits of his presidential powers.

According to The Washington Post, he "renewed his call for Congress to give him the authority to ‘raise' mileage standards for all passenger cars." Then perhaps signaling a nod and a wink to his Big Oil friends, "White House officials said later, however, that they didn't know when or how the president would use that authority."

Meanwhile, the GOP Congress is scrambling to flex some 11th hour Election Year muscle of its own by reviewing oil company tax returns and "reaffirming authority for state and federal officials to fight price gouging."

No surprise that they are also attempting to exploit an increasingly squeezed middle-class by once again calling for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge under the false pretense that it will provide economic relief at the gas pump. The truth, as the US Geological Service estimates, is that ANWR drilling would likely produce a total amount insufficient to fill the need for even one year of US domestic consumption and it wouldn't even hit the market for 10 years!

President Bush, too, offered his own rendition of Johnny Law in pursuit of any evildoer oil companies: "We'll make sure that the energy companies are pricing their product fairly. If we catch them gouging, if we catch them -- unfair trade practices, we'll deal with them at the federal government. That's what you expect the federal government to do."

Indeed, many citizens and Democrats have been asking -– if not expecting -– the formerly well-oiled, oil-friendly White House to do that for quite some time. Senators Maria Cantwell, Jeff Bingaman, and Bill Nelson all introduced legislation that would have cracked down on price gouging, as has Rep. Bart Stupak and even Republican Rep. Heather Wilson. In fact, lawmakers have repeatedly called on Bush over the past year to investigate and punish price gouging. But Oil man Bush--head of an administration loaded with ex-oil and gas executives-- is just walking the walk. If he actually talked the talk he'd be calling for subpoenas and public testimony from his oil industry cronies; he'd be calling for an all-out investigation of the industry's pricing practices-- from the wells to the gas pumps.

Even if the GOP does finally crack down on price manipulation, greed and collusion in the oil industry (while also pursuing more drilling and a roll-back of environmental protections) as a result of the public's "we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore" outrage – there is a more important long-range issue: when will we unite around a sane policy to achieve real and lasting energy independence for our nation?

The Apollo Alliance has provided a blueprint for doing just that. This coalition of labor, environmentalists, (enlightened) business people, lawmakers, and social justice activists offers best practices already implemented in states across the nation, as well as its own innovative ideas for achieving energy independence in the next decade (the name comes from JFK's goal to land a man on the moon within 10 years).

Founded in 2003, the group's 10-point plan includes: promoting renewables; upgrading existing energy infrastructure; improving efficiency in transportation, industry, and buildings; research in new clean technology; and Smart Growth for cities and suburbs.

Joel Rogers, Chair of Apollo's National Steering Committee and Director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, says of the plan, "We estimate that $300 billion spent on our plan, would generate about 3 million new jobs…. It would generate a little over $1 trillion in additional GDP over its ten-year development. And, most important, probably, it would reduce our energy costs by better than $300 billion annually. That would effectively…. eliminate our dependence on the Middle East… [and] it should reestablish the American position in what is clearly going to be a gigantic world market for clean-energy technology…. Our plan has been out there for about two years now, and nobody has seriously questioned any of these numbers."

What is –- and has been –- lacking is the political will to challenge the status quo and, in the case of many politicians, to bite the hand that feeds them. But helped along by skyrocketing gas prices, an unpopular war, growing concern about global warming, and an overwhelming majority of Americans who now think that sustainable energy independence should be a top national priority, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to argue with Apollo's message of good jobs and energy independence.

One current proposal that would take an important step is Rep. Dennis Kucinich's Gas Price Spike Act. It would tax oil companies for excessive profits; transfer those revenues to tax credits for Americans who purchase fuel-efficient cars; and establish a program to promote inter- and intra-city mass rail transit.

Other important measures have been recently proposed by Ohio Senate candidate Sherrod Brown, who has made alternative energy a core component of his economic platform. Foremost among his proposals is the transitioning to bio-fuels, hybrid technology, and other alternative energy sources.

Ralph Nader -- whose best work has been as a consumer crusader taking on the oil companies -- has also weighed in with a series of smart proposals . It is high time, he argues, to use antitrust action to break up the oil industrial cartel. "The claim by the oil barons that they're just responding to the marketplace of supply and demand is laughable," Nader argues. "A competitive domestic oil industry would not be so able to close down scores of refineries and then turn 'refinery shortages' into higher gas prices at the pump."

The kind of transformative thinking represented most clearly by the Apollo Alliance is exactly what is needed if we are to work our way out of this mess. Election year grandstanding will provide some good theater and a cathartic public shaming of some oil executives. But, after that, let's not find ourselves exactly where we are today – hostage to the oil industry and wondering why we let things get so bad.

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