The question of energy independence dominates the lexicon of energy
policy. The oil-dependent Bush Administration believes the answer lies beneath
the permafrost in Alaska, the sagebrush of the Mountain West or the blue waters of the Gulf Coast. But it does not. For all its oil reserves, does Nigeria have energy independence? Does Columbia? They don’t, because true energy independence is not about the borders that surround the oil, but the boardrooms that control it.
After lurching forward some 225 years with the notion that our leaders represent the people, American energy policy is now set in corporate boardrooms. A far cry from the vision of Thomas Jefferson who hoped America would “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations.”
But there is no denying now that in the ascendancy of corporations, America has flourished. Only today we are in the nexus of the downside. The democratic ideals that once rose alongside prosperous corporations are now ebbing. Individual rights and corporate interests are diverging rapidly. Corporations have unfettered access to elected officials. Citizens do not. Nowhere is this more dangerous than in the development of our national energy policy.
At the center of this maelstrom is America’s dependence on oil. The dependency is a byproduct of a century of easy oil. But this is a new century and oil is no longer easy to come by. Today, alternative energy sources and innovation should be the focus of our national energy policy. What oil is left, should remain safely separated in Nature’s plan from air, water, foliage and animals.
But the Bush administration does not see it that way; despite the wars that rage in a hunt for these remaining deposits and the desperate and costly struggle to mitigate the environmental impact of oil use. In fact, the long-term costs associated with oil are now greater than the actual economic benefit of the energy itself. In a market economy, how can this happen? The answer is simple: companies don’t bear these costs. Taxpayers do.
Essentially, Americans pay a down payment of approximately $1.50-$2.00 a gallon for their gasoline. They then pay an additional $3.00 per gallon through their taxes to pay for the military cost of protecting the oil supply and the environmental and health costs associated with oil’s use.
And these costs are only going to rise. For example, building more oil facilities will come with a huge price tag for security. Consider that of the 257 major oil spills in 1999, 51 were the result of terrorist attacks (according to risk analyst Cutter Information Corporation). And that was pre 9/11.
Since funds in our society are finite (like oil), Americans are basically diverting between $30-50.00 from schools, fire departments, police departments, 911 emergency response services, libraries, parks and healthcare for every tank of gas they buy. And to make matters worse, energy companies also pay perhaps the lowest tax rate of any individual or business in our society. Is it any wonder that ExxonMobil will make $17 billion in annual profits this year?
For all its keen sense of peril, the Bush Administration ignores what threatens America at every turn: poison in the air, water and food supply at risk, global warming, and a generation of America children with toxics in their blood. And although this is lost on the Bush Administration, it will not be lost on the American public indefinitely.
The Bush administration has concluded that oil dependence is not the problem, just dependence on foreign oil. But we know better. If the market for oil is better in Shanghai than Cheyenne, it won’t matter if the crude came from Alaska or Arabia. It’s going to Shanghai. That is why there can be no energy independence as long as corporations are setting energy policy. And that is why continued oil dependence can no longer be passed on as solution for America’s energy needs.
Blaine Townsend (email@example.com) is a vice president and portfolio at Trillium Asset Management Corp., the nation’s oldest and largest independent investment advisor concentrating solely on socially responsible investing.