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The U.S. Needs a New Energy Policy ... Now

Only a dramatic change in course -- governed by an entirely new policy framework -- can reduce the risk of catastrophe and set the nation on a wise energy trajectory.
 
 
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This story is from a new special issue of The Nation on energy. Read more here.

If the ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico tells us anything, it is that we need a new national energy policy—a comprehensive plan for escaping our dangerous reliance on fossil fuels and creating a new energy system based on climate-safe alternatives. Without such a plan, the response to the disaster will be a hodgepodge of regulatory reforms and toughened environmental safeguards but not a fundamental shift in behavior. Because our current energy path leads toward greater reliance on fuels acquired from environmentally and politically hazardous locations, no amount of enhanced oversight or stiffened regulations can avert future disasters like that unfolding in the gulf. Only a dramatic change in course—governed by an entirely new policy framework—can reduce the risk of catastrophe and set the nation on a wise energy trajectory.

By far the most important part of this strategy must be a change in the overarching philosophy that steers decisions on how much energy the United States should seek to produce, of what sorts and under what conditions. It may not seem as if we operate under such a philosophy today, but we do—one that extols growth over all other considerations, that privileges existing fuels over renewables and that ranks environmental concerns below corporate profit. Until we replace this outlook with one that places innovation and the environment ahead of the status quo, we will face more ecological devastation and slower economic dynamism. Only with a new governing philosophy—one that views the development of climate-friendly energy systems as the engine of economic growth—can we move from our current predicament to a brighter future.

One way to appreciate the importance of this shift is to consider the guiding policies of other countries. In March, I had the privilege of attending an international energy conference at Fuenlabrada, just outside Madrid. I sat transfixed as one top official after another of Spain's socialist government spelled out their vision of the future—one in which wind and solar power would provide an ever increasing share of the nation's energy supply and make Spain a leader in renewable energy technology. Other speakers described strategies for "greening" old cities—adding parks, farms, canals and pedestrian plazas in neglected neighborhoods. Around me were a thousand university students—enthralled by the prospect of creative and rewarding jobs in architecture, engineering, technology and the sciences. This, I thought, is what our own young people need to look forward to.

Instead, we are governed by an obsolete, nihilistic energy philosophy. To fully comprehend the nature of our dilemma, it is important to recognize that the gulf disaster is a direct result of the last governing blueprint adopted by this country: the National Energy Policy of May 17, 2001, better known as the Cheney plan. This framework, of which the former vice president was the lead author, called for increased drilling in wilderness areas, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Congress did not permit drilling in ANWR, but it wholeheartedly embraced wider exploitation of the deepwater gulf. To speed these efforts, the Bush administration encouraged the Minerals Management Service to streamline the issuing of permits to giant oil firms like BP to operate in these waters. BP clearly took shortcuts when drilling offshore—thus inviting the blowout on April 20—but it did so in a permissive atmosphere established by the 2001 policy framework.

The 2001 energy plan was devised with substantial input from the energy industry—no representatives of the environmental community were invited to the secret meetings held by Dick Cheney to prepare it—and was widely viewed as a payoff to Bush/Cheney supporters in the oil industry. But it was far more than that: at its core, the plan embodied a distinctive outlook on the role of energy in the economy and how that energy should be supplied. This outlook held that cheap and abundant energy is an essential driver of economic growth and that the government's job is to ensure that plentiful energy is endlessly available. As noted by President Bush at the time, "The goals of this strategy are clear: to ensure a steady supply of affordable energy for America's homes and businesses and industries." But not just any sort of energy. In deference to the executives of Chevron, Enron, ExxonMobil and the other energy giants that helped elect Bush in 2000, the plan aimed to extend the life of the nation's existing energy profile, with its overwhelming reliance on oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

 
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