In a previous essay we noted that the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism and the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons have created a foreign policy dilemma that the incoming administration will face following the 2008 elections. We will now turn our attention to domestic issues, beginning with the need for an energy policy that is workable.
That the United States needs an energy policy borders on the self-evident. Unfortunately, such a policy does not exist; has never existed; and will not be created unless the voters send an unmistakable message to Congress in November 2008! Take a look at how federal policy-makers and Congress have “fiddled while America burned” in the recent past.
- 1973: Middle Eastern oil exporters embargo shipments to the United States and other nations that supported Israel during the “Yom Kippur War.” Gasoline goes from less than 30 cents per gallon to $1 per gallon in less than 6 months.
- Response: Congress and the White House, preoccupied with the unfolding Watergate scandal, seem paralyzed by indecision. Congress lowers the speed limit on the Interstate Highway System to 55 MPH, orders gas rationing at the retail level, implements “price controls,” and calls for voluntary individual and corporate conservation. 1, 2
- 1979: The Shah of Iran is deposed and personnel at the American Embassy in Tehran are seized. America stops purchasing Iranian oil, causing gasoline prices move from an average of 70 cents per gallon to around $1.50 to $1.75 per gallon.
- Response: The Carter Administration, paralyzed by a rapidly falling popular approval rating, makes half-hearted calls for energy conservation measures while Congress distances itself from even the appearance of support for the President. 1, 2, 3
- 2004-2007: Following years of practically no domestic exploration, no increases in refining capacity, no emphasis being placed on alternative energy sources, and a succession of hurricanes striking the American Gulf Coast, gasoline prices move past $3 per gallon prior to the Memorial Day Holiday weekend. 1, 2, 4
- Response: What response?
As indicated above, we seem to have learned little when it comes to learning from our past. Consider the following facts:
- There has not been a major oil refinery constructed in the United Sates since 1976. 5
- “…the last unit to enter commercial operation was TVA’s Watts Bar Unit 1 in June 1996, and the last successful order for a U.S. commercial nuclear power plant was in 1973. No energy generation company in the Unites States has been willing to order and construct a new nuclear plant in more than thirty years, and none have taken anything more than preliminary steps towards purchasing and constructing a new nuclear plant today…” 6
- So far, in calendar year 2007, the United States has averaged 13.6 million barrels of imported oil per week at an average price of some $63 per barrel. This represents a net cash outflow from the United States of ~$750 million per week, most of which goes into geopolitical arenas that are not supportive of western concepts such as democracy, women’s issues, or secular government. 4
Obviously, the failure to take definitive action in both 1973 and 1979 has only added to the seriousness of the current situation. Two major crises, two missed opportunities. We must not again allow stop-gap measures to masquerade as long term policy. The question facing the incoming administration and Congress is not whether to take action but rather how strong a response should be forthcoming.
Any energy policy enacted by Congress must address the following issues.
First, such actions must encourage the use of domestically-obtainable petroleum resources whenever possible while reducing imports of foreign oil. Reductions in imports of raw petroleum will result in greater stability for the American economy as well as avoiding the obvious moral hypocrisy of engaging in commerce with nations that are openly hostile to American ideals. Such reductions will also have the indirect effect of reducing the risks of environmental damage to our coastlines and fisheries.
Secondly, a major component of a reasonable petrofuels policy must include incentives for the mass production of alternatively fueled private transportation vehicles as well as incentives for purchase of such vehicles. Once began, such programs will revitalize the private and commercial transportation sectors as well as related support services industries.
There must be provisions in any national energy policy that will encourage the replacement of fossil fuel electrical generation facilities with wind-driven, biomass, and/or atomic generation facilities.
Finally, there must be a radical change in the philosophy that “big is better” in relation to research and development of alternative energy technologies. While there is much to be said in favor of “research focused groups” and other larger-scale research, it should be recalled that larger programs have the annoying tendency to turn into bureaucracies and lose their initial focus. There should be adequate provisions included in the new energy policy to encourage and nurture individual and small group efforts relating to energy development.
Political parties and individual candidates that to not reveal their positions on matters of energy policy should be viewed in a critical light regarding their positions on other issues.
1. Environmental Protection Agency (2007): The EPA’s Position on the Energy Crisis.
2. Donald R. Wulfinghoff (2000): “The Modern History of Energy Conservation: An Overview for Information Professionals” Electronic Green Journal, December 2000 (unpaginated).
3. Carter addressed the nation on the evening of 15 July 1979, delivering the “Crisis of Confidence” speech. A transcript of that speech is available here.
4. The United States Department of Energy / Energy Information Administration web site provides both weekly and historical data regarding the source and type of American energy imports as well as domestic reserves and exploration patterns. The cited figures are correct for the reporting period ending 11 May, 2007.
5. Delta Regional Authority (2006): Refinery Study. 6. Natural Resources Defense Council (2004): The Near-Term Economic Picture for Commercial Nuclear Generation
7. For an excellent example of how the private sector can, and has, responded to concerns regarding petrofuels and other economic and/or environmental concerns see the Renewable Thermodynamics web site as well as US Energy Independence web site, particularly the White Paper arguing that energy independence is attainable.