Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The energy cure

Under different circumstances it might have been encouraging to hear President Bush declare, as he did in his State of the Union address, that “America is addicted to oil.” It might have been, that is, if he and his Republican cohorts hadn’t done so many things to keep our country hooked on its petroleum habit.

Many of us recall Richard Nixon, at the time of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, claiming cause for national pride in the U.S. role as the world’s largest consumer of oil.  As Nixon spun the facts, our profligate consumption was a sign of strength, and long might it continue.

When Jimmy Carter got to the White House, he made energy conservation and development of renewable sources a national priority, only to encounter resistance in Congress – notably from the oil-state senators – and ridicule in supposedly friendly quarters.  Even some of Carter’s own party sniffed at the peanut farmer in his cardigan setting back the first family’s thermostat.  (For once, a national Democrat had shown a keen understanding of the power of symbolism, but some who should have backed him up tried to make Carter’s act a symbol of futility, not of leadership.)

Reagan wasted no time in picking apart the Carter incentives for conservation, and the oil-friendly Bush family kept unraveling the wool.  With the SUV craze going full throttle, once the Republicans got control of Congress they even slipped a few lines into a tax bill that encouraged small businesses to buy gas-thirsty trucks.  (The upshot of that was pediatricians and quick-print shops writing off the cost of 10-mile per gallon Hummers as business necessities.)

My local newspaper made it out that Bush gave an important emphasis to the oil issue in his speech Tuesday night. Here’s the entire passage, as reported in the New York Times from the White House’s pre-delivery text:

“Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem. America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.

“The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, more reliable alternative energy sources, and we are on the threshold of incredible advances. So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative, a 22 percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies and clean, safe nuclear energy.

“We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips, stalks or switch grass.  Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.

“Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal, to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.  By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.”

Just for the record, that passage occupied five inches of the 90 that the text required in my Times.

Others have made the point that we actually buy less than a quarter of our oil from the Middle East.  Closer, larger suppliers are Canada, Mexico and Venezuela. What needs to be added is that oil is a fungible resource – that is, a barrel of crude from East Texas is pretty much the same as one from Kuwait or Iraq.  And in a global market, what we don’t buy in the Middle East, someone else will.  So pumping out of one well instead of another doesn’t really change the price of oil or the overall supply available to the world.  

I am less than enthusiastic about the president’s emphasis on ethanol as a substitute for oil.  It takes oil for tractors and natural gas for fertilizer to grow the corn and cane from which ethanol is being made, so you don’t really obtain a gallon-for-gallon replacement value.

It’s time to redouble the attention to efficiency and conservation that were spearheaded by President Carter. He was, let it be remembered, an engineer as well as a farmer.  These are times for problem-solving, not doctrinaire politics. It’s my view that the market hasn’t a perfect solution for every need. Sometimes, there needs to be a national policy backed up by law to make us do what is good for us all.

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