All the Bush administration proposals for meeting the nation’s rising energy needs have just one thought in mind – to increase the amount of oil, gas, and electricity available to the public.
Many people in California and other energy-deficient states may applaud this approach, but all Americans will suffer if U.S. leaders put all their efforts into expanding supply, rather than curbing demand.
Every year, the United States consumes more energy than it did the year before. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, total energy consumption will grow by one-third between 2000 and 2020.
Much of it will go for automobile and truck use; another large portion will power the Internet and other computer-driven systems. During the 1990s, when energy was relatively cheap, Americans got used to bigger, less fuel-efficient vehicles, and filling their homes with electronic devices.
Now the administration is telling us that we can continue to increase consumption. “Leave the rest to us,” they say, “we’ll make sure that adequate supplies will be available when you need them.”
Americans should be deeply suspicious of such talk. We would like more cheap energy, but we also know when to resist the claims of snake-oil peddlers.
Even with a massive effort–on the level of the national mobilization during World War II–it is doubtful that we could do what the administration proposes: construct 1,900 new electrical power plants over the next 20 years, along with dozens (hundreds?) of new oil refineries and 38,000 miles of natural gas pipelines.
Not only will this cost trillions of dollars –from sources yet to be identified – but it will also require overturning land-use restrictions in thousands of towns, cities, counties, and other jurisdictions.
But this is not just a matter of practical impediments – many such obstacles can be removed. We must also calculate the harmful aspects of the administration’s plan.
• Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Despite President Bush’s reassurances, there is considerable evidence that this would do irremediable harm to a pristine wilderness and threaten endangered species.
• Increased use of coal.
True, coal is relatively cheap and abundant, but it releases far more carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels when burned, thus accelerating the buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
The technology to filter out these gases exists, but remains costly. And coal is not a practical fuel for trucks and automobiles – although we could go back to using it to power locomotives.
• New nuclear reactors.
Nuclear reactors release no carbon dioxide, but they do produce highly-toxic radioactive wastes that must be stored safely and there are still unanswered questions about the adequacy of existing storage procedures.
• Additional natural gas pipelines.
Although considered relatively safe, natural gas pipelines do pose enough risk of explosion to make many communities reluctant to allow them to traverse their territory. One possible solution is to locate them on the seabed (as with a proposed Texas-to-Florida system), but this is costly and entails environmental risks of its own.
Obviously, the administration’s approach is dangerously misleading.
We can, of course, increase the supply of energy. But we cannot achieve all of the increases contemplated by the White House without experiencing considerable harm.
Our energy policy must, therefore, emphasize reducing demand as much as expanding supply. Fortunately, there are practical ways to limit demand.
Most important, we must raise the fuel efficiency of automobiles and trucks – especially the SUVs that now constitute such a large share of the nation’s automobile fleet. This must be an urgent national priority.
We can also mandate further increases in the energy efficiency of computers, appliances, light fixtures, and other electrical devices.
Increased investment is also needed in solar, wind, and biomass energy systems.
We have two choices.
We can endorse the administration’s approach, and view demand for energy as an insatiable monster that must be satisfied at any cost, or we can choose an alternative strategy, aimed at taming the beast.
The former has its undeniable attractions, but we will be doing ourselves a terrible injustice if we fail to choose the latter.
Michael T. Klare, professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College, is author of Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict.