Talking Points for an Energy Crisis

Talking Points for an Energy Crisis

Now that rising gas prices and plummeting sales of gas hog vehicles has gotten everyone’s attention, let’s talk about a long-term plan.


Airlines are cutting back on water for plane toilets to save weight and fuel. They had better come up with a better business plan than that. And in the face of the burgeoning oil-price crisis, America had better come up with a plan as well.

Single-issue fixes–like John McCain’s plan to grant consumers a summertime gas-tax holiday, or Obama’s proposal for a windfall profits tax on oil companies–just won’t do it. America needs a comprehensive plan to deal with post-peak oil–and that is going to involve some serious long-term thinking. To get the thought process going, here’s a list of ideas–some good, some not so good–about how to address political, technological and social dimensions of the planet’s most pressing issue.


The United States rationed energy during World War II and, though there was the inevitable black market, it worked. People will hate it, but the only fair way for rich and poor to have equal access to a dwindling resource is to give each citizen an equal allotment. Does any political leader have the courage to suggest this? Does the American public have the fortitude to participate?

The Manhattan Project

Politicians should stop talking about a Manhattan Project for energy. It took two-and-a-half years to design and build the atomic bomb. It will take a much longer to invent, prefect and deploy solutions to our energy problem.

Instead of a giant, government-financed Manhattan Project, money would be better spent on a number of different research efforts. These should not be decided on by lawmakers from states desirous of selling corn or coal. The projects and priorities should be made by disinterested committees of the National Academy of Science, and not the barons of political pork.

Environmental NIMBYism

Until science and technology come up with a workable solution to surviving in a post-carbon era, we have to accept some imperfect solutions. Seaside aesthetes in Nantucket and elsewhere who don’t like the looks of wind farms on the horizon will have to withdraw their objections. So will people who unequivocably oppose nuclear power, desalinization plants, biofuel or any number of other options in an era of scarce resources.

Environmental NIMBYism has reached the point of self-destructive self-indulgence. Can Americans agree to overcome our selfish objections to new ideas in the interest of resolving our energy dilemma?

Don’t Take the Train

Except for a very few special situations, high-speed trains are not going to significantly ease our transportation woes. First, they’re energy hogs–anything that moves at 300 mph will burn fuel inefficiently. Further, those high-speed trains running around Japan and France are the products of strong central government and planning ahead–years ahead–something Americans take pride in not doing. Given the lawsuits that inevitably would be filed by residents in affected neighborhoods, a high-speed train could not be built in the United States in less than fifty years.

Subways and light rail vehicles (trolleys) won’t work, either. Subways, which are titanically costly to build, cannot be justified except in those few densely populated areas where they can be expected to carry a couple of hundred thousand people an hour. Light rail is less expensive, but still not cheap. And once installed, no rail system’s routes can be changed, and so are unresponsive to population shifts.

Take the Bus

All hail the humble bus. The roads it runs on have already been built. Buses come in every size, configuration and degree of comfort, from barebones school bus to limo-luxury. Buses are flexible. Their routes can easily be changed. As new fuels and technologies are perfected, they can provide targeted solutions to a community’s changing transportation needs. Buses and shuttles like those already serving airports in many cities are ideal for commuting and useful for shopping, soccer-momming, trips to the doctor and other purposes, thanks to GPS and technology that can deploy them at the least cost, smallest delay and most convenience for their passengers.

Stop the Roller Coaster

Rein in the oil futures market. The panic causing abrupt ups and downs of oil prices may be diminished by new regulations requiring players to put up more dough to get into the game. The country ought not to live in fear of tossing its breakfast every morning when it hears the business news.

Tax Oil

This tax would apply when the price of oil drops below a stipulated number. The tax would be slowly increased over twenty or twenty-five years to prevent us from falling back into our gas-piggish ways when and if oil gets cheap again. An oil tax is the best means of guaranteeing low-mpg cars and low energy houses located for short distance commutes.

This kind of tax will be opposed as a restraint on freedom, social planning, unfair to minorities and unjust to majorities. But it’s the right thing to do.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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