Beyond Cheney's Energy Policy: Clean, Green, Safe, and Smart

If the ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico tells us
anything, it is that we need a new national energy policy-a
comprehensive plan for escaping our dangerous reliance on fossil fuels
and creating a new energy system based on climate-safe alternatives.
Without such a plan, the response to the disaster will be a hodgepodge
of regulatory reforms and toughened environmental safeguards but not a
fundamental shift in behavior. Because our current energy path leads
toward greater reliance on fuels acquired from environmentally and
politically hazardous locations, no amount of enhanced oversight or
stiffened regulations can avert future disasters like that unfolding in
the gulf. Only a dramatic change in course-governed by an entirely new
policy framework-can reduce the risk of catastrophe and set the nation
on a wise energy trajectory.

By far the most important part of this strategy must be a change in
the overarching philosophy that steers decisions on how much energy the
United States should seek to produce, of what sorts and under what
conditions. It may not seem as if we operate under such a philosophy
today, but we do-one that extols growth over all other considerations,
that privileges existing fuels over renewables and that ranks
environmental concerns below corporate profit. Until we replace this
outlook with one that places innovation and the environment ahead of the
status quo, we will face more ecological devastation and slower
economic dynamism. Only with a new governing philosophy-one that views
the development of climate-friendly energy systems as the engine of
economic growth-can we move from our current predicament to a brighter

One way to appreciate the importance of this shift is to consider the
guiding policies of other countries. In March, I had the privilege of
attending an international energy conference at Fuenlabrada, just
outside Madrid. I sat transfixed as one top official after another of
Spain's socialist government spelled out their vision of the future-one
in which wind and solar power would provide an ever increasing share of
the nation's energy supply and make Spain a leader in renewable energy
technology. Other speakers described strategies for "greening" old
cities-adding parks, farms, canals and pedestrian plazas in neglected
neighborhoods. Around me were a thousand university students-enthralled
by the prospect of creative and rewarding jobs in architecture,
engineering, technology and the sciences. This, I thought, is what our
own young people need to look forward to.

Instead, we are governed by an obsolete, nihilistic energy
philosophy. To fully comprehend the nature of our dilemma, it is
important to recognize that the gulf disaster is a direct result of the
last governing blueprint adopted by this country: the National Energy
Policy of May 17, 2001, better known as the Cheney plan. This framework,
of which the former vice president was the lead author, called for
increased drilling in wilderness areas, such as the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge, as well as in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Congress did not permit drilling in ANWR, but it wholeheartedly embraced
wider exploitation of the deepwater gulf. To speed these efforts, the
Bush administration encouraged the Minerals Management Service to
streamline the issuing of permits to giant oil firms like BP to operate
in these waters. BP clearly took shortcuts when drilling offshore-thus
inviting the blowout on April 20-but it did so in a permissive
atmosphere established by the 2001 policy framework.

The 2001 energy plan was devised with substantial input from the
energy industry-no representatives of the environmental community were
invited to the secret meetings held by Dick Cheney to prepare it-and was
widely viewed as a payoff to Bush/Cheney supporters in the oil
industry. But it was far more than that: at its core, the plan embodied a
distinctive outlook on the role of energy in the economy and how that
energy should be supplied. This outlook held that cheap and abundant
energy is an essential driver of economic growth and that the
government's job is to ensure that plentiful energy is endlessly
available. As noted by President Bush at the time, "The goals of this
strategy are clear: to ensure a steady supply of affordable energy for
America's homes and businesses and industries." But not just any sort of
energy. In deference to the executives of Chevron, Enron, ExxonMobil
and the other energy giants that helped elect Bush in 2000, the plan
aimed to extend the life of the nation's existing energy profile, with
its overwhelming reliance on oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

However, a strategy aimed at producing more energy while maintaining
reliance on traditional fuels was inherently problematic. Although the
concept of "peak oil" was not then in widespread circulation, energy
experts were becoming increasingly aware of the impending scarcity of
conventional oil-i.e., liquid crude acquired from easily accessible
reservoirs. Concerns were also growing about the future availability of
easily accessible coal and natural gas. The only way to supply more
energy while preserving the existing energy profile, Cheney and his
allies concluded, was to increase the level of environmental and
political risk, whether by drilling in wilderness areas and the
deepwater gulf or by procuring more energy from dangerous and unfriendly
areas, such as the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union.
This became the underlying premise of the 2001 energy plan and underlies
much of the global violence and environmental devastation unleashed by
Bush during his eight years in office.

Adherence to the Cheney plan has had another significant downside: it
has focused energy investment on the extension of the existing energy
paradigm rather than on introducing renewable energy systems. Far
greater funds have been devoted to, say, deep offshore drilling and the
extraction of gas from shale rock than to advancing wind and solar
power. As a result, the United States has fallen behind China, Germany,
Japan and Spain in developing next-generation energy systems,
jeopardizing our future competitiveness in the global economy.

The philosophy that produced these disasters-"more energy of the
existing types at whatever the risk"-must now be repudiated and replaced
by a new, forward-looking alternative that stresses innovation and
environmental protection. Such an outlook would replace each component
of the Bush/Cheney philosophy with its opposite. Instead of growth at
any price, it would emphasize energy sufficiency-the minimum amount
needed to accomplish vital tasks. Instead of clinging to existing,
environmentally damaging fuels, it would harness America's ingenuity in
the development of new, climate-friendly fuels. And instead of embracing
environmental and political risk as a solution to scarcity and
excessive greed, it would favor domestically produced, renewable systems
that largely eliminate the element of risk. To compress this into a
nutshell, the new outlook would favor energy that's "clean, green, safe
and smart."

What, in practice, would this entail?

First, let's take a closer look at "sufficiency"-the basis for all
else. By energy sufficiency, I mean enough energy to meet basic consumer
and industrial needs without succumbing to a bias for waste and
inefficiency, as is now the case. For example, if X number of American
commuters must drive Y number of miles every day to work, sufficient
energy would be the amount needed to power the most fuel-efficient
personal or public-transit vehicles available, rather than the most
inefficient. Likewise, sufficient heating energy would be the amount
needed to heat American homes and businesses if all were equipped with
the most efficient heating and insulation systems. A wise energy policy
would aim to provide whatever is needed when all reasonable measures for
efficiency have been factored in-and no more than that. Of course, the
transition from inefficient to efficient transportation, heating and
industrial systems will be costly at first (the costs will go way down
over time), so a wise policy would provide subsidies and incentives to
facilitate the transition.

Defining what constitutes sufficient energy will require considerable
time and effort. But thanks to visionaries like Amory Lovins of the
Rocky Mountain Institute, enough is known about the potential energy
savings of various conservation and efficiency initiatives to be
confident that our economy can produce more in the years ahead using far
less energy. Likewise, Americans can lead equally satisfying lives with
less energy use. For example, if every car owner in America drove a
gas/electric hybrid or superefficient conventional vehicle instead of
one getting about twenty miles per gallon (the current national
average), we could reduce our daily oil intake by as much as 4-5 million
barrels per day (of a total consumption of approximately 20 million
barrels). And if the hybrids were of a plug-in type that could recharge
their batteries at night when power plants have surplus capacity, the
oil requirement could be reduced by several million more barrels without
requiring additional power plants. Clearly, we don't need more oil to
satisfy our transportation needs; we need more efficiency.

By seeking energy sufficiency instead of constant growth, we free
ourselves of a tremendous burden. It is impossible to keep expanding the
net supply of energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and
uranium-powered fission; the only sure way to achieve growth is to
supply more of every fuel available. Once you abandon the commitment to
growth, however, it is possible to begin the truly critical task:
reducing our reliance on traditional fuels while significantly
increasing the share of energy provided by alternatives.

To put things in perspective, fossil fuels now provide about 84
percent and nuclear power about 8.5 percent of America's net energy
supply; renewables, including hydropower, provide a mere 8 percent.
Although the amount of energy provided by renewables is expected to grow
in the years ahead, the United States is projected to need so much more
energy under its current path-114.5 quadrillion British thermal units
per year in 2035, compared with approximately 100 quadrillion today-that
it will need much larger amounts of oil, gas and coal to supply the
necessary increase. As a result, says the Energy Department, we will
rely more on fossil fuels in 2035 than we do today, and will be emitting
greater quantities of carbon dioxide.

Clearly, the existing path leads us ever closer to environmental
catastrophe. Only by freezing (and eventually reducing) the total amount
of energy consumed and reversing the ratio between traditional and
alternative fuels can disaster be averted. A progressive energy policy
would aim to achieve a ratio of 50:50 between traditional and renewable
fuels by 2030, and by 2050 would confine fossil fuels and nuclear power
to a small "niche" market.

Accepting the necessity of switching to noncarbon alternatives, what
are the "clean, green and safe" fuels that America should rely on? Any
source of energy chosen to meet the nation's future requirements should
meet several criteria: it must be renewable, affordable, available
domestically and produce zero or very low amounts of greenhouse gas
emissions. Several fuels satisfy two or three of these qualities, but
only one-wind power-meets all of them. When located at reliably windy
spots and near major transmission lines, wind turbines are competitive
with most existing sources of energy and have none of their
disadvantages. Solar power comes close to wind in its appeal, possessing
great utility for certain applications (such as rooftop water heating);
still, electricity derived from existing photovoltaic cells remains
uncompetitive with other fuels in most situations. Geothermal, tidal and
wave energy show great promise but will need considerable development
to be commercially applicable on a large scale. Biofuels derived from
cellulose or algae also look promising, but they, too, require more
work. Further out on the development path are hydrogen and nuclear
fusion; it will take at least another generation or two before they will
achieve widespread commercial utility.

Some within the environmental community argue for short-term reliance
on some combination of natural gas, nuclear fission and coal, using the
carbon capture and storage process as a "bridge" to renewable fuels,
recognizing America's slow start in adopting the latter. While a case
can be made for each of these, not one is clean, green and safe. Natural
gas, while emitting less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, is
increasingly being derived from shale rock through the environmentally
risky process known as "hydraulic fracturing" [see Kara Cusolito, "The
Next Drilling Disaster?" June 3]. Nuclear fission produces radioactive
waste that cannot be stored safely. Likewise, there is no assurance that
carbon separated from coal can be stored safely for long periods of
time. It follows that a wise policy would seek to leapfrog these
technologies and move as rapidly as possible to renewable sources of

With this in mind, the basic goal of a new national energy policy
should be to minimize the use of existing fuels while ramping up the
development and use of truly green alternatives-which requires not just
technological innovation but a concerted effort to bring the new
technologies to scale in the market, as Christian Parenti argues in the
following article. The transition will also require a change in the way
energy is distributed. At present a large share of our energy, in the
form of oil, natural gas and coal, is delivered by pipeline, rail and
truck. Most renewables, however, will be delivered in the form of
electricity. This will require a massive expansion of the nation's
electrical system-and its transformation into a "smart grid" that can
rapidly move energy from areas of strong wind or sun (depending on
weather conditions) to areas of peak need. A smart grid would also allow
people to install their own energy-generating systems-solar panels,
wind turbines, hydrogen fuel cells-and sell surplus energy back to the

Specifically, this policy would seek to:

  • dramatically increase the use of wind power by adding more turbines
    and by increasing links to an expanded national electrical grid;
  • increase the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of solar energy,
    especially photovoltaics and solar-thermal power;
  • accelerate the development of geothermal, tidal and wave power as
    well as biofuels derived from cellulose and algae, and expand research
    on hydrogen fuel cells and nuclear fusion;
  • create a national "smart grid" capable of absorbing a vast increase
    in wind, solar, geothermal and wave power and delivering it to areas of
    greatest need;
  • spur the development, production and acquisition of
    super-energy-efficient vehicles, buildings, appliances and industrial
  • accelerate the transition from conventional vehicles to hybrids,
    from regular hybrids to plug-in hybrids and from hybrids to all-electric
  • encourage and facilitate greater personal reliance on intercity
    rail, public transit, bicycles and walking.

To achieve these goals, the government will have to assemble policy
tools and funding devices. All incentives and subsidies for fossil fuel
extraction and nuclear fission should be phased out, and like amounts
directed toward the development of promising renewables and the further
modernization and expansion of the electrical grid. Liberal tax breaks
should be awarded to households and small businesses that invest in
energy-saving heating, cooling and lighting systems; similar breaks
should be offered for the purchase of hybrid and electric vehicles. Many
key initiatives, such as the construction of regional high-speed rail
lines, will be costly. To finance such endeavors, taxes on gasoline and
other carbon-based fuels should be increased as payroll taxes are
decreased, thus encouraging job growth while discouraging carbon
pollution; rebates should also be given to cushion the effect on
low-income people. In addition, a ten-year, $250 billion energy
innovation fund should be established to provide low-interest loans for
commercializing promising new technologies being developed at
universities and start-up firms around the country; once repaid, these
funds could then be used to fund other such endeavors.

The Cheney plan envisioned, among other goals, building 1,000 new
nuclear power plants by 2030. By contrast, the new energy policy
envisioned here would have the following goals:

  • create 5 million jobs through the pursuit of a green energy
    revolution, with a focus on the construction and manufacturing sectors,
    as outlined by the nonprofit group the Apollo Alliance;
  • maximize the nation's energy efficiency-in transportation, heating,
    electricity and all other sectors-such that total energy demand
    declines by at least 50 percent by 2050, as documented in a
    comprehensive study by Greenpeace International and the European
    Renewable Energy Council;
  • phase out oil consumption, except in niche markets, by 2030;
  • formalize the current de facto moratorium on constructing new
    coal-fired power plants, phase out existing plants as well and halt all
    coal use by 2020;
  • supply at least 75 percent of US electricity from wind, solar and
    other renewable sources by 2030 and 99 percent by 2050, as described in
    the Greenpeace-EREC study;
  • shift the US vehicle fleet to all-electric cars by 2035, to be
    powered with renewable energy;
  • reduce US greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels) by at least
    90 percent by 2050, as described in the Greenpeace-EREC study.

There is not enough space here to argue the case for each of these
specifics, but the essential elements of the new energy policy our
nation needs are these: a guiding philosophy, a vision of the intended
outcome, an assessment of the possible energy sources and an outline of
tools for implementation. Each of the final three can be modified as
necessary to account for global events and scientific advances; but
adherence to the first is critical. Adopting an enlightened new
philosophy to guide our nation's future energy plans is the single most
valuable thing we can do in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

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