During George W. Bush’s first months in office in 2001, before 9/11 swept all else aside, his top policy objective was to overcome the ongoing energy crisis, triggered by oil shortages, high gasoline prices and an overtaxed infrastructure. “The nation has got a real problem when it comes to energy,” he declared in March of that year. “We need more sources of energy.” To tackle this problem, Bush ordered Vice President Cheney to devise a new national energy strategy. The resulting blueprint, announced with great fanfare on May 17, 2001, called for a host of initiatives aimed at boosting the nation’s energy supply. Today this strategy, like so much else touched by Hurricane Katrina, lies in ruins.
Signs of the wreckage abound. There are, first of all, the high gasoline prices caused by damage to the Gulf Coast’s drilling wells and refineries. Working-class commuters in rural areas will be particularly hard-hit, as Sasha Abramsky points out in this issue. Rising fuel prices will also add to the cost of other products, including food. Home heating costs are expected to skyrocket, producing misery and illness–even death–for those on fixed incomes who cannot afford the inflated prices. Many workers in the airline and tourist industries will lose their jobs as high fuel costs eat into profits and discourage personal travel. All but the very rich will be affected in one way or another.
These effects are not merely the product of natural disaster. True, Katrina inflicted considerable damage on key oil and gas facilities, significantly adding to the nation’s energy woes. But it only exacerbated a situation that was already becoming dire before August 29. What makes Katrina so significant is not its short-term consequences, which can be overcome, but the massive flaws it exposed in the larger edifice of Administration policy.
These flaws derive from the driving thrust of the Cheney plan: to perpetuate the nation’s addiction to cheap petroleum for another few decades, thereby preserving the power and profits of Big Oil (from which so many of the Bushies emerged) and postponing the costly and disruptive–but ultimately inevitable–transition to a post-petroleum energy system. The Cheney plan paid lip service to the need for conservation, but the emphasis was on increasing the supply rather than curbing the demand.
In pursuing its goals, however, the White House faced a monumental dilemma: The nation’s appetite for cheap petroleum keeps growing, as more and more SUVs hit the road, while the amount available from domestic fields is in decline. To overcome this challenge, Cheney came up with two basic solutions: (1) boost output from offshore fields in America’s coastal waters, most notably the Gulf of Mexico, and (2) increase imports from key foreign suppliers, particularly those in the Middle East, Africa and the Caspian Sea region. Progress in the first arena would be achieved through tax breaks, subsidies and environmental waivers for Big Oil; progress in the second would be promoted through diplomacy, economic incentives and–though this was not publicly acknowledged–“regime change.”