Dissecting the Bush Energy Plan
By Bill Moore
I've just finished reading the report of the National Energy Policy Development Group -- all 170 pages of it. It is an ambitious effort to define a comprehensive national energy strategy for America. And while I find many of its recommendations both insightful and constructive, I also sense a certain cynicism in it.
Just two weeks after the architect of the plan, Vice President Cheney belittled the conservation ethos at an Associated Press conference in Canada, the plan simply effuses phases like "environmentally-responsible", "renewable energy" and yes, even the "c" word, conservation.
In fact, if you just thumbed through or scrolled the digital version of the report, you might even get the impression it had been penned by the Sierra Club instead of an ultra-conservative Republican White House run by two Texas oil men and an advisory board made up largely of folks in the paid employ of the energy industry.
For example, there is a full page, glossy image of a trout fisherman casting his lure in a crystal clear mountain stream somewhere in the Rockies, a landscape the plan would open to gas and oil exploration and exploration. There are several pictures of wind turbines silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky above a field of yellow wild flowers. Of course, the Bush Energy Department budget has drastically slashed renewable energy research into solar and wind turbine technology the latter in which the Europeans currently lead. (The Plan does recommend extending the 1.7 cents a kilowatt tax credit for wind generated electricity, however.)
On page 36, a young farm family walks through a field of grain. To the plan's credit it does recognize the plight of the farmer as energy costs escalate and commodity prices collapse. It is little wonder that farm organizations have endorsed the biofuels and wind energy part of the plan though they might have strong objections to the energy infrastructure part of the Plan once they understand its implications.
There are beautiful shots of campers in the wilderness, a mountain lake, and a Redwood forest, as well as a sailboat sailing peacefully past a nuclear power plant. There are at least two photographs of solar panels, one a large utility scale project, another on a super-efficient home, implying the Administration's endorsement of this form of energy. However, the amount of monetary incentive being offered in the form of a 15% tax credit up to $2,000 will probably do little to encourage consumers to install useful-sized systems.
And in keeping with what I see is the real objective of the plan, there are the obligatory images of an offshore oil platform bathed (appropriately it turns out) in the light of the setting sun. There is also a frost-covered Alaska oil pipeline and happy caribou grazing peacefully alongside Prudhoe Bay. The publication also features artistically photographed images of high tension power lines, an oil refinery and wildcatters at work, as well as an illustration of how it's possible to drill for oil and natural gas in the far north with minimal impact on the surrounding landscape.
But I've written enough corporate brochures in my time, two of them for Aquila Energy in its early years, to know a fossil fuel industry PR job when I see one.
In all fairness, the President's National Energy Plan does get passing marks for laying out the scope of the challenge of balancing the need for energy in a world of over 6 billion people without destroying the very ecosystem upon which those same 6 billion depend. And I tend to agree with the NEPD Group and the President that we need more energy - - though I don't think we Americans are entitled to continue to use an increasingly disproportionate share of it at the expense of the developing world. I also think we need to use any energy we extract or convert in the most efficient manner technologically feasible.
Where I part company with the President and his plan is where that energy comes from. The Bush plan, for all its rhetoric about "environmentally-responsible" energy development, is really a blueprint for just more of the same old, tired 20th century status quo. Though an alleged GOP secret memo leaked to the Washington Post urges the White House to take the initiative by labeling the plan a National Energy Plan for the "21st Century", there is precious little in it that even remotely smacks of the 21st century.
Modern wind turbines, advanced photovoltaics, fuel cells, hydrogen, all are given only what I regard as a polite tip of the hat as the Plan ponderously rolls on to the heart and core of its objective, the systematic removal of one environmental, financial or regulatory safeguard after another in the pell-mell pursuit of more oil and gas and coal, fuels of the 19th and 20th centuries, but which have little place in the 21st.
The Group's report continually laments the numerous impediments to exploration in the lower 48 states and on Alaska's North Slope. It recommends the President direct the various secretaries of Energy and Interior and Commerce and the EPA to find ways to streamline access to public lands previously off-limits to exploration and exploitation. At the same time they urge the President and Congress to pass even more tax incentives and royalty reductions to energy companies, citing the risks of exploration in deep water zones and in the Arctic.
As if the antiquated focus on fossil fuels weren't of serious enough concern, the plan also urges the building of more nuclear power plants. It does candidly acknowledge the problem of nuclear waste disposal and recommends establishment of a national waste repository, based on that well-worn conservative mantra, "sound science."
But what it fails to address is the fact that the US has been wrestling with the nuclear waste disposal issue without consensus for some twenty years. The unspoken truth is, there are very few Americans who want a nuclear waste storage facility built in or under their backyard or would even want it transported through their state.
Case in point. The Yucca Mountain facility on the nuclear test site in southern Nevada was supposed to be that location, but Nevada has fought tooth and nail to keep the nuclear waste out. Even the people who manage commercial development of the test site will tell you in private that they personally are opposed to using the facility for waste storage.
The report argues that modern vitrification processes have reduced the volume of nuclear waste from power plants and weapons production, but it also admits the material is still hazardous and will be for a very long time.
While it may be true that improvements have been made in the design and safety of modern nuclear power plants since the days of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, it is also equally true that the technology is still the most dangerous form of energy generation known to man. We can dismantle an obsolete coal power plant with relatively minor environmental cleanup, comparatively speaking. A decommissioned nuclear power plant (and they all must eventually be decommissioned someday, whether it is in my generation or that of my grandchildren) will remain an unproductive, uninhabitable radioactive ""hot zone" for thousands of years! The more of these beasts we build -- and there are over 450 worldwide already - - the more harmful the legacy we leave future generations. A nuclear power plant may generate zero greenhouse gases and create a handful of temporary union pipe fitter jobs, but in my view they represent an unacceptable burden on the future.
Having read this far you might get the impression that I found little of value in the Plan, but that wouldn't be quite true. Having carefully read most of the recommendations of the NEPD Group, I think there are some constructive elements to it, especially in its support for alternative energy and conservation - - modest though they are - - as well as the need to streamline overlapping bureaucracies and regulations and improve our energy infrastructure.
I am encouraged by the support expressed for distributed generation, hybrid-electric vehicle incentives, the extension the wind energy tax credit and the need to improve vehicle fuel efficiency. The Group also seemed to go out of its way to soothe the sensibilities of environmentalists in many of its recommendations.
My concern is that the realities of the Bush budget, with its drastic cuts in renewable energy research and huge tax credits and royalty reductions for oil companies not to mention the $2 billion for the coal industry will effectively overshadow the well-intentioned but very modest conservation and alternative energy aspects of the plan.
I think it also sends the wrong signals to investors, energy companies, utilities and consumers, not to mention the international community, some of whom have labeled the plan "criminal." The United States should be leading the world into the new century, pushing the frontiers of a sustainable future. Instead, the US appears to be retreating further into last century, apparently unmindful of the fact that the cheap, abundant energy that fueled the 20th century is nearly gone.
The report only alludes to this fact while implying that if we throw enough money at the problem, we'll find plenty more oil and gas. A similar approach was taken in the early 1980's and US oil production continued to decline. And while the United States is still one of the world's largest producers of petroleum and natural gas, we are also the largest importer, to the tune of over 50% of all our oil needs, the majority of it used to fuel our transportation system. Opening ANWR and drilling off the coast of Florida, and elsewhere, won't reduce oil prices or our dependence on imports. That's a simple fact of life. Higher energy prices are probably here to stay, especially if we continue to rely on depletable resources like oil and gas.
In fact, the plan offers little to address the current energy situation. It says little or nothing about global warming or climate change. It is so supply-side focused as to be nearly myopic in its global perspective. It also sets few if any goals for the nation, especially in terms of energy efficiency.
If the White House had asked my opinion or input on the plan here's what I would have recommended:
(1) Establishment of a national energy efficient priority program that includes specific targets and timeframes.
(2) Adoption of an ever expanding national sustainable energy portfolio in which every year the ratio of renewables to fossil fuels shifts in the favor of renewables. My goal would be a 40/60 renewable to fossil fuels ratio by 2025 and an 85/15 ratio by 2050.
(3) Immediate passage of regulations to increase auto fuel economy and the creation of a public education campaign - - funded by carmakers -- to encourage consumers to begin buying more fuel efficient vehicles.
The plan's authors do recommend a similar move with the proviso that it not adversely impact car companies. I think that is a generous, but unnecessary amendment that can be turned into a regulatory loophole the size of Lake Michigan.
If the Bush Administration wants to leave behind a worthy legacy beyond 2004, it needs to be far more forward thinking, showing leadership that is global in perspective. While President Bush is to be commended for tackling an obviously difficult issue, one that has been largely ignored by the last three administrations, two of which were Republican, he has shown little initiative to set the pace for the rest of the planet. EV World believes this is a strategy that will ultimately cost America jobs and the respect of the rest of the world.
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