Oil independence: all rhetoric so far

Friday, February 17, 2006

By Andrew Korfhage

In January's State of the Union address, President George W. Bush informed the American people of something we already knew: We're addicted to oil.

"The best way to break this addiction is through technology," Bush stated. "We are on the threshold of incredible advances." This much is true.

However, neither Bush's energy initiative, nor the Energy Act passed by Congress in 2005, can provide the momentum to cross that threshold or the incentive to make those advances. Mr. Bush proposed to break America's addiction to oil by lowering imports from the Middle East by 75 percent over 19 years. This goal is too modest and too slow. Oil from Persian Gulf countries already accounts for less than 20 percent of U.S. imports. We purchase foreign oil from more than 100 countries all around the world, with only one of our top five suppliers -- Saudi Arabia -- located in the Middle East. Reducing America's reliance on oil from politically volatile areas is only one part of the energy puzzle. America needs to reduce its oil consumption from all geographic regions -- including from wells here at home -- because over-dependence on fossil fuels is more than just a national security issue. Fossil fuel dependence is well known as an environmental issue, though the catastrophic effects of global warming (caused largely by burning fossil fuels) went entirely ignored in the president's speech. Yet scientific opinion on global warming has become so unified that even the Pentagon called it a more serious threat than terrorism in a 2004 report.

Furthermore, fossil fuel dependence is a serious economic issue that will only worsen over time, as resources diminish and prices rise. Too many Americans depend on a source of fuel they won't be able to afford once oil hits its peak, which could occur as soon as 2010, according to expert testimony presented to Congress at an energy hearing in December.

Right now, Americans represent 5 percent of the world's population, but consume 25 percent of the world's oil. Our lifestyles will be hit hardest when oil peaks -- unless we enact a bold new energy policy now. The Energy Act signed into law last year failed to provide that bold new policy. Instead, Congress and the president focused on making it easier for oil and gas companies to drill new wells, eliminating environmental impact studies for hundreds of new projects. Rather than fund meaningful incentives for cutting-edge renewable energy technology, Congress and the president instead offered more subsidies to the oil and gas industry, including $1.5 billion in incentives to drill in our coastal waters. (This, in a year when ExxonMobil reaped a record $36 billion in profits.)

Similarly, the president's State of the Union proposals also failed to describe bold new policy. Mr. Bush called for no energy-efficiency measures whatsoever, and although he mentioned funding for cleaner coal technology, solar power, wind energy, and nuclear power plants, the budget numbers released by the White House reveal paltry investments. For example, the president's budget proposes only $148 million for solar energy -- a clean energy source free from nuclear power's national security and human health risks, or coal's environmental degradation. Compared to the billions of dollars given away to Big Oil, this is almost nothing.

Our government's energy priorities are the opposite of what they should be. Development of clean, accessible, perpetually renewable energy sources like solar power should receive the greatest portion of our taxpayer dollars. These will yield the greatest benefits to the greatest numbers of people -- a cleaner environment, job creation, reduced climate risk, and a self-sufficient infrastructure to produce renewable power for generations to come. Continued development of dirty, outdated, finite, and environmentally destructive sources of energy like petroleum should be discouraged. Incentives for oil and gas companies need to redirect these companies' time and talents into efforts that benefit us all -- not just those with an interest in increasing Big Oil's bottom line.

"By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past," Mr. Bush stated in his address.

His words are exactly right. Now he and Congress need to come up with some policies that match the rhetoric.

Andrew Korfhage is an editor at Co-op America, a nonprofit consumer education organization for socially and environmentally wise purchasing and investing. He can be reached at andrew@coopamerica.org -- www.coopamerica.org.