The U.S. Needs a New Energy Policy ... Now
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However, a strategy aimed at producing more energy while maintaining reliance on traditional fuels was inherently problematic. Although the concept of "peak oil" was not then in widespread circulation, energy experts were becoming increasingly aware of the impending scarcity of conventional oil—i.e., liquid crude acquired from easily accessible reservoirs. Concerns were also growing about the future availability of easily accessible coal and natural gas. The only way to supply more energy while preserving the existing energy profile, Cheney and his allies concluded, was to increase the level of environmental and political risk, whether by drilling in wilderness areas and the deepwater gulf or by procuring more energy from dangerous and unfriendly areas, such as the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union. This became the underlying premise of the 2001 energy plan and underlies much of the global violence and environmental devastation unleashed by Bush during his eight years in office.
Adherence to the Cheney plan has had another significant downside: it has focused energy investment on the extension of the existing energy paradigm rather than on introducing renewable energy systems. Far greater funds have been devoted to, say, deep offshore drilling and the extraction of gas from shale rock than to advancing wind and solar power. As a result, the United States has fallen behind China, Germany, Japan and Spain in developing next-generation energy systems, jeopardizing our future competitiveness in the global economy.
The philosophy that produced these disasters—"more energy of the existing types at whatever the risk"—must now be repudiated and replaced by a new, forward-looking alternative that stresses innovation and environmental protection. Such an outlook would replace each component of the Bush/Cheney philosophy with its opposite. Instead of growth at any price, it would emphasize energy sufficiency—the minimum amount needed to accomplish vital tasks. Instead of clinging to existing, environmentally damaging fuels, it would harness America's ingenuity in the development of new, climate-friendly fuels. And instead of embracing environmental and political risk as a solution to scarcity and excessive greed, it would favor domestically produced, renewable systems that largely eliminate the element of risk. To compress this into a nutshell, the new outlook would favor energy that's "clean, green, safe and smart."
What, in practice, would this entail?
First, let's take a closer look at "sufficiency"—the basis for all else. By energy sufficiency, I mean enough energy to meet basic consumer and industrial needs without succumbing to a bias for waste and inefficiency, as is now the case. For example, if X number of American commuters must drive Y number of miles every day to work, sufficient energy would be the amount needed to power the most fuel-efficient personal or public-transit vehicles available, rather than the most inefficient. Likewise, sufficient heating energy would be the amount needed to heat American homes and businesses if all were equipped with the most efficient heating and insulation systems. A wise energy policy would aim to provide whatever is needed when all reasonable measures for efficiency have been factored in—and no more than that. Of course, the transition from inefficient to efficient transportation, heating and industrial systems will be costly at first (the costs will go way down over time), so a wise policy would provide subsidies and incentives to facilitate the transition.
Defining what constitutes sufficient energy will require considerable time and effort. But thanks to visionaries like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, enough is known about the potential energy savings of various conservation and efficiency initiatives to be confident that our economy can produce more in the years ahead using far less energy. Likewise, Americans can lead equally satisfying lives with less energy use. For example, if every car owner in America drove a gas/electric hybrid or superefficient conventional vehicle instead of one getting about twenty miles per gallon (the current national average), we could reduce our daily oil intake by as much as 4–5 million barrels per day (of a total consumption of approximately 20 million barrels). And if the hybrids were of a plug-in type that could recharge their batteries at night when power plants have surplus capacity, the oil requirement could be reduced by several million more barrels without requiring additional power plants. Clearly, we don't need more oil to satisfy our transportation needs; we need more efficiency.