Everyone from Thomas Friedman to George W. Bush talks about America’s addiction to oil, but few are doing anything useful about it. Instead, we get Senate majority leader Bill Frist, like a Tammany boss at election time, proposing to hand out $100 bills to every American and the Democrats pandering back with a call for a sixty-day suspension of the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax. We need leaders who understand that this is a systemic crisis that goes to the very roots of the American way of life–big cars, Big Oil, big business and sprawl–and that there can be no solution but a systemic one.
In his energy speech, on April 25, Bush showed he doesn’t get it. He offered a four-point program that’s a grab bag of measures, such as suspending deposits into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, rescinding tax breaks to oil companies and old faves like opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling (which might produce a year’s worth of oil ten years from now) or conjuring up visions of hydrogen fuel cells (which, at the present pace, will be available around 2020).
So far, our leaders are more concerned with dousing a political brush fire than with formulating good national energy policy. To be sure, if gas prices continue to climb, there will be hell to pay for the party in power in November. The mixture of an unpopular war and a direct hit on the wallets of car-dependent Americans is highly volatile.
Politics aside, though, the United States faces urgent energy issues, some of which first came to public notice during the 1973 OPEC embargo in retaliation for US aid to Israel in the Yom Kippur War. That shutoff caused a price spike and long gas lines, followed by another spike in 1979 because of the revolution in Iran. Those crises stimulated a fuel-conservation drive, which while it lasted encouraged architects to design energy-efficient buildings and Detroit to start making more fuel-efficient cars. Cheaper oil reversed that process.
A lot of oil has passed through the pipelines since the 1970s. The emerging problems of those days have become the crises of today. While politicians continue to fiddle, petroleum prices are in a state of permanent ascent because of international competition and the end of easily extracted oil. Moreover, global warming, then a little-understood phenomenon, has become a clear and present danger to the very survival of the planet.
A serious energy policy would mandate an immediate reduction in the substantial US contribution to global warming. Such a policy would ante up real money to accelerate production of alternative fuels like E85 (85 percent gasoline and 15 percent ethanol). It would include much higher fuel-economy standards (CAFE) to prod the car companies to manufacture high-mileage, hybrid and flex-fuel cars and tax refunds to encourage consumers to buy them. (Representative Dennis Kucinich’s Gas Price Spike Act would use revenues from an excess-profits tax to pay for such incentives and to improve the mass transportation infrastructure.) Gas taxes should be raised to nudge consumers into buying these cars; the proceeds would go to an income support program for working-poor drivers who need their cars to get to jobs and are being hurt most by rising gas prices. Legislators should contrive long-range blueprints–along the lines of the Apollo Alliance’s ten-point plan–that would promote renewables, upgrade the energy infrastructure, improve efficiency in the transportation and building industries, finance more clean technology and institute “smart growth” programs for cities and suburbs (see www.apolloalliance.org).
A comprehensive energy policy would also declare energy independence from unstable oil suppliers with autocrats who skim profits while tyrannizing their people. The hypocrisy of our claims to promote democracy is revealed to the world when Dick Cheney chastises Russia for suppressing democracy, then hobnobs with the corrupt rulers of oil-rich Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Also on the energy agenda should be laws and antitrust actions against Big Oil’s economic tyranny at home. A decade of mergermania has restructured the industry into a few giant cartels that can manipulate supply and demand (for example, by cutting domestic refining capacity to create gasoline shortages). These companies are so powerful, they dictate energy policy to their man in the White House and buy off lawmakers with lavish donations ($33 million in 2005, according to politicalmoneyline.com). We need public shaming of the oil companies before Congressional committees for their excess profits, fat CEO pay scales and bloated returns on capital. The Justice Department should launch an antitrust inquiry into the oil giants’ pricing policies.
The first step toward curing America’s addiction to oil is to admit that the problem is much worse than high gas prices. We face a long-term energy and environmental crisis, and to address it we need reality-based leadership that will map a clear route to sustainable energy independence and a nonpolluting future.