Al Hubbard, the economic adviser who is coordinating the Bush administration's energy strategy, recently promised that President George W. Bush would produce "headlines above the fold that will knock your socks off in terms of our commitment to energy independence."
Every president since Richard Nixon has talked this way, while every year the country slides further into dependency. Bush's overpromising has included a forecast that we would all be buying hydrogen-fueled cars in 20 years and his pledge a year ago to rid the United States of its addiction to oil.
Still, we must hope that Bush is serious this time, because we simply cannot continue to hold U.S. national security and the health of the planet hostage to America's appetite for fossil fuels.
America's closest allies, and increasingly its governors, know this. Last week, the European Union — shaken by Russia's threatened shutdown of oil passing through Belarus — announced a menu of initiatives aimed at reducing Europe's dependence on unreliable suppliers while cutting greenhouse-gas emissions with cleaner fuels and new technologies.
In the United States, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California ordered state regulators to require fuel-oil companies and refiners to start reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other global- warming gases. The order is expected to help jump-start the production of biofuels and, over time, hydrogen for fuel cell cars. It follows an earlier California directive requiring more fuel-efficient vehicles, and represents an important element in the state's broad plan to cut global- warming emissions from all sources by 25 percent by 2020.
For its part, Congress is churning out energy bills. But this is a recipe for paralysis unless it observes a few basic guideposts.
The last thing America needs is another multi year debate leading to yet another giant bill that offers something for everyone without really changing the way the country produces and uses energy. Senators Harry Reid and Jeff Bingaman have produced the outlines of a bill that could become the template for more specific action. It sets two basic goals: Reducing America's dependency on oil and reducing the risks of global warming. And it focuses on a handful of remedies, including more efficient automobiles, the rapid development of alternative fuels and cleaner ways of producing power.
Partisanship and posturing must be resisted. Right now, House Democrats are fixated on eliminating unnecessary tax breaks and closing loopholes that favor the oil and gas industry. Fair enough, but that's not an energy policy. The House has been notoriously unenlightened on energy issues, and Nancy Pelosi, the speaker, has some heavy educating to do to make her colleagues full partners in this essential national enterprise.
Doing things right will take serious money. In recent days, for instance, Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana and Senators Barack Obama of Illinois and Jim Bunning of Kentucky — any politician, that is, with coal to sell — have jumped aboard the coal-to-gasoline bandwagon as the answer to dependence on foreign oil.
The world has lots of coal, which can indeed be converted to gasoline. But the process releases enormous amounts of carbon, far more than refining oil into gasoline does. Unless we are willing to invest in technologies that can sequester carbon emissions and keep them out of the atmosphere, turning to coal could be a disaster for global warming.
So far, nobody — not the coal industry, Congress or the White House — has displayed much interest in making these investments, just as nobody except for a few states like New York and some plucky private investors has shown much interest in the investments necessary to produce biofuels on a commercial scale. Without them, we're just talking a good game, which is all Bush did last year.
Copyright © 2007 the International Herald Tribune