Column:The Public Eye: It’s Time to Demand a Common-Sense Energy Policy By Bob Burnett

Tuesday May 17, 2005

In response to rapidly rising gasoline prices, President Bush called for Congress to pass his energy plan even while admitting that such an action wouldn’t reduce costs. “I wish I could simply wave a magic wand and lower gas prices tomorrow … [my bill won’t] change the price at the pump today.” 

What Bush’s energy bill will do is to protect the windfall profits of big oil companies such as Exxon Mobil, whose earnings for the first quarter of 2005 were up 44 percent. The Bush legislation will also make it easier for the petroleum giants to drill and build refineries wherever they want. 

It’s a sadly familiar pattern. This administration doesn’t have a plan for any of the difficult problems that confront America: homeland security, the economy, global climate change, and now, energy. Instead of a reasonable first step, asking Americans to make a common sacrifice with across-the-board conservation, the administration offers instead, magical thinking. In the president’s fantasy, the “free market” will miraculously solve our gasoline shortages. 

Bush insists that the Republican version of the tooth fairy—the “technology wizard”—will magically make everything better, “In the years ahead, technology will allow us to create entirely new sources of energy …[it] is the nation’s ticket to energy independence.” He holds up the development of hydrogen fuel as an example, a solution that sober minds believe won’t be a reality for at least 20 years. 

The inability of the Bush administration to get a grip on America’s energy problems raises the question of what a common-sense energy policy would actually look like.  

It seems obvious that a realistic plan would begin with an acknowledgment that the world is at, or very near, “peak” petroleum production. Americans are about to experience huge increases in oil prices. For this reason, we should do everything possible to reduce our reliance on petroleum, which is about forty percent of our total energy utilization. (This estimate does not include natural gas, which is another 25 percent.) Because transportation accounts for two-thirds of all American oil usage, it follows that we should diminish our everyday consumption. Private automobiles are by far the largest consumers of petroleum. Paris and Los Angeles are cities of roughly the same population density; however, residents of Los Angeles use four times the annual energy, because Los Angelenos are totally dependent upon the private automobile while Parisians utilize a superb train and subway system. Americans should begin to rely on public transportation as much as possible. 

The next logical step would be for all those who insist on owning their own automobile to replace it with a hybrid. The current generation of hybrid cars—fueled by electricity and gasoline—performs at approximately 50 miles per gallon (mpg). The next generation will use different batteries, ones that plug into the electrical grid at night, and, as a result, will get 75 mpg. Today, in Brazil, it is possible to buy vehicles with flexible-fuel tanks that use petroleum, ethanol, and methanol in combination. If you add this capability to a plug-in hybrid, then performance increases to roughly 400 miles per gallon of gasoline. A realistic energy policy would provide tax credits for hybrid vehicles and incentives to promote the manufacture of plug-in and flexible-fuel-tank hybrids. (It would also provide for “carbon fuel” taxes to penalize all those who resist moving to alternative fuels.) 

American Industry accounts for 25 percent of our oil usage and much of this stems from the production of plastics. A realistic energy plan would tax plastics in all forms. Petroleum is also used in a variety of other products, such as detergents, fertilizers, film, and paints; all of these goods should be taxed. The remaining 8 percent of our petroleum usage results from energy-generation by public utilities and consumers, in forms such as generators and furnaces. Utilities need to be subjected to positive and negative incentives so that they will stop using carbon-based fuels and turn to renewable sources such as solar, biomass, and wind. 

Finally, a common-sense energy plan would ask all Americans to make their residences more energy efficient. Once again, there could be incentives for improving home insulation and adding features such as solar panels to heat our water and generate electricity. Citizens could also be motivated to replace their old, power-hungry appliances with new, low-powered versions. (The San Francisco Sierra Club website—http://sanfranciscobay.sierraclub.org— has a good summary of these alternatives.) 

Providing a reasonable alternative to the Bush energy plan is not rocket science. A common-sense energy policy means taking a look at our major uses of oil and figuring out reasonable alternatives and incentives to drive Americans in the desired direction. Sadly, our experience with the Bush administration suggests that they aren’t interested in reasonable alternatives; the giant energy companies—who are among the biggest donors to Republican causes—support their current policies. However, Americans can still intervene through Congress to force them to get a grip on reality. We can dismiss the Bushies’ magical thinking and demand that the United States adopt a common-sense energy policy. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@comcast.net.