Bush's Energy Disaster
As the Senate cast its votes on the energy bill last Friday, giving Republicans a little legislative victory before everyone skipped town for the summer, Bush issued a congratulatory statement. "I applaud Congress," he said, "for a bill that will help secure our energy future and reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy." A nice sentiment -- except that "securing our energy future" is the one thing the bill won't do.
Then again, that was never the intention. This was Bush's baby from the start, the fruition of Cheney's infamous task force, to which he invited every industry honcho he could find to write their own tickets right into the country's energy policy. After that, of course, it was larded with extra tax breaks and subsidies, like $500 million in deep-water drilling that will likely wind up in Tom DeLay's hometown, Sugar Land, and billions more that will drain straight into industry coffers.
This at a time when high oil prices are sending industry margins soaring: Exxon-Mobil's third quarter last year was the most profitable corporate earnings in history. Boone Pickens, head of BP Capital Management, a billion-dollar hedge fund that makes people wealthy trading energy futures and related investments, sums up the high times like so: "I've never had so much fun in my life."
But the giveaways are the least of the bill's problems. When both sides claim victory, it's a sure sign of mediocre legislation. Republicans got to line some pockets and call it economic progress. Democrats were able to shelve (for now) a few hot-button issues like the MTBE indemnity and drilling in ANWR. (And when barely derailing a raid on ANWR is considered a Democratic victory, it only shows how much the Republicans have been able to set the agenda.) Likewise, Republicans were able to take out the fuel-efficiency standards and global-warming language that so offended them. In the end, the energy bill was a hodgepodge, a collection of provisions with no vision.
The problem is we need vision with energy most of all. Because there will come a day, sometime fairly soon, when a barrel of light, sweet crude will emerge from some oil field and the world will have officially burned more oil than what's left in the ground. That moment -- peak oil, it's called -- is not a question of if but when: Some say the tap-out starts out in 30 years; Exxon-Mobil's own recently published estimate says five; one Princeton geologist says maybe next year. When it does happen, it may not be celebrated, or even noticed right away, but it will mark the beginning of the long slide to an inevitable reconfiguration of, well, civilization as we know it.
If that sounds alarmist, recall that our vast economy of just-in-time, transnationally shipped inventory is fueled entirely by petroleum. As is our food supply, whose end products like poultry and beef are elaborate (and remarkably inefficient) conversions of petroleum energy into food calories. The widespread use of petrochemical fertilizers to grow feed for livestock has turned agriculture into one of the biggest sources of oil demand after transportation. It's a demand that's skyrocketing worldwide: With current measures, experts predict global oil consumption will rise 57 percent by 2025 -- just in time for that coming peak. If small supply shocks like OPEC's embargoes in the '70s can create recessions, what would happen in the face of significant, persistent, growing shortages?
A Greater Depression, or even chaos, is the answer, as was discovered in late June at a war game called "Oil Shockwave." The participants, including many former Republican administration members, spent several days running through various scenarios of disrupted oil supply. Even with small-scale trouble, the exercises quickly spun out of control. "The American people," concluded former CIA Director Robert M. Gates, "are going to pay a terrible price for not having an energy strategy."
James Woolsey, another former CIA director present at "Oil Shockwave," was equally troubled. Woolsey, friend to Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and Douglas Feith, and member of the bona fide neocon Defense Policy Board, has become an alternative-energy buff in the interest of national security. A few weeks later, Woolsey presented a paper along with George Schultz, Reagan's secretary of state, to the Committee on Present Danger about how our oil dependency makes the country extremely vulnerable. They argued that national security requires a radical change in energy policy, starting with fuel-efficiency standards. Woolsey and Schultz also dared to draw the less-talked-about blood/oil connection: that the spread of the Wahhabi ideology and a lot of terrorist planning has been funded by petrodollars.
If energy conservation, then, is a first line of national defense, why do so many jackasses drive their SUVs around with American flags all over them? More importantly, why did the country get an energy bill that, according to the administration's own Energy Information Administration (EIA), will actually raise gas prices and increase oil demand nearly 14 percent in just the next six years?
To be fair, the bill did include many new incentives for renewable energy. And although many on the Left don't like it, the bill's jump-start for nuclear power -- much safer today with new technology -- has some mixed promise. But that's not broad enough thinking. We need what Woolsey and Schultz describe: a focused effort in funding and research that turns the energy equation upside down.
Instead, we're getting $10 billion more "missile defense." And an even costlier PR junket -- I mean scientifically valuable manned mission -- to Mars. Not to mention the war in Iraq, at $200 billion and counting. Imagine how much renewable-energy development we could have gotten for all that money. Problem solved! With the kind of funding wasted by Bush in just the past five years, we could have had a Manhattan Project for energy security several times over -- and actually made a difference in national security. As Woolsey and Schultz put it, sounding like granola munchers on their way to Earth Day:
"A plug-in hybrid averaging 125 mpg, if its fuel tank contains 85 percent cellulosic ethanol, would be obtaining about 500 mpg. If it were constructed from carbon composites, the mileage could double, and, if it were a diesel and powered by biodiesel derived from waste, it would be using no oil products at all . . . What are we waiting for?"