A Cynical Energy Plan
The Progressive magazine, June 2001
Two years after the warmest decade on record, three years
after the warmest year on record, while the ice cap on top of
Mount Kilimanjaro melts and glaciers around the world recede,
we have just what we need to accelerate global warming even further:
a manufactured energy crisis and an Administration dedicated to
putting its grimy hands on every drop of fossil fuel it can find.
During his first months in office, George W. Bush has managed
to send U.S. energy policy-already seriously behind the times-into
the Dark Ages. First, he reneged on his promise to cut emissions
of carbon dioxide. Then he opted out of the Kyoto Accord, the
1997 international treaty designed to cut production of greenhouse
gases that contribute to global warming. The United States is
the world's largest producer of carbon dioxide, a central greenhouse
gas, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
When he explained his decision, Bush said that scientific
knowledge of global warming was "incomplete"-an old
tobacco company dodge.
A February 2001 report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change says that carbon dioxide makes up 64 percent
of global warming gases. Most of the controllable carbon dioxide
emissions come from the coal, oil, and gas industries. The panel
warned that, if global warming was not brought to a stop, it could
lead to more and more serious droughts, storms, and floods, cause
the spread of disease, and result in more hunger, displaced populations,
"When you put two oil men in the White House, I guess
this is what you have to expect," said Bill Hare, head of
climate policy for Greenpeace, who called Bush's global warming
In a recent op-ed for the Progressive Media Project, Joshua
Karliner, executive director of CorpWatch, says that G. W. Bush
stands for Global Warming Bush.
Bush's next move was the budget, which sharply curtails money
for research into renewable energy and efficiency. It also ties
solar energy research directly to the receipts from oil drilling
in the Arctic. ("It's like funding drug rehab by funding
heroin and crack," says Kert Davies, Global Warming Campaign
Coordinator for Greenpeace.)
Then the oil man who became President sent his fellow oil
man, Vice President Dick Cheney, out to admonish the American
people that there is a national energy crisis afoot, bound to
get big and ugly, like the one in California.
But his solution was enough to make any environmentalist gasp.
"Vice President Dick Cheney said today that oil, coal, and
natural gas would remain the United States's primary energy resources
for 'years down the road' and that the Bush Administration's energy
strategy would aim mainly to increase supply of fossil fuels rather
than limit demand," reported The New York Times on May 1.
He dismissed conservation as 1970s-think: "Conservation may
be a sign of personal virtue, but it's not a sufficient basis
for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." And he claimed
that the only way to solve the "crisis" was new oil
drilling (including drilling in protected parts of the Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge), increased coal mining (which he said
is cheap, plentiful, and neglected), and more nuclear power, which
is, he said, "as a matter of record, a safe, clean and very
plentiful energy source."
"I think it's pretty clear why the Bush-Cheney team is
doing this," says Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's
Critical Mass Energy and Environment Project. "The only green
they understand is the color of money, and this is payback time
for their campaign contributors."
According to The Wall Street Journal, Houston-based Enron,
the nation's largest supplier of natural gas, contributed $1.3
million to the Bush campaign and Inaugural Fund and to the Republican
National Committee. Overall, says the Center for Responsive Politics,
gas and oil companies gave $13 to Bush for every dollar they contributed
Bush and his oil and gas buddies have long wanted less regulation
and more production. But the Administration's exploitation of
the California energy crisis is particularly galling. "What's
new and disgusting," says Hauter, "is that they are
playing on the crisis in California, which is the result of deregulation."
Harvey Wasserman, author of The Last Energy War: The Battle
over Utility Deregulation (Seven Stories, 2000), agrees with Hauter
that California is the crisis that wasn't. "It's totally
manufactured," says Wasserman. "There's never been an
energy shortage. California has never exceeded its capacity. What's
happened is the power producers at the margin have cut off power
at crucial times and made people pay through the nose."
Pacific Gas & Electric, which supplies much of the state
with electricity, entered what The New York Times describes as
"one of the largest bankruptcy filings in history."
But, as the Times noted, "it has been a banner year for the
rest of its parent company, the PG&E Corporation." The
California Public Utilities I Commission is looking into charges
that PG&E and Edison International, whose California subsidiary
is also near bankruptcy, made inappropriate transfers of cash
to the parent companies.
On May 2, California's lieutenant governor, Cruz M. Bustamante,
and Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews filed suit against five of
the largest power generators in the state, alleging that the companies
had engaged in illegal gouging that cost the state billions.
If deregulation brought on the chicanery in California, the
last thing the country needs is more of it.
More nuclear power plants are no answer, either. "What
they're proposing will not do anything near to solving our energy
crisis," says Wasserman. "Nuclear power is a complete
failure. You could say that nuclear energy has caused our energy
crisis. It's inefficient, unreliable, unsafe." Wasserman
cites the amount of money the United States has spent on nuclear
power over the past fifty years. "If that trillion dollars
had been invested in renewables and efficiencies as was proposed
fifty years ago [by the Truman Administration], we wouldn't be
having an energy crisis," he says.
Nuclear power is susceptible to all kinds of problems. Three
Mile Island, the Pennsylvania nuclear reactor that suffered a
meltdown in 1979, cost $900 million to build. "In one minute,
it turned into a $2 billion liability," says Wasserman. During
the California energy mess, four nuclear power plants were licensed
to operate, Wasserman says. On February 3, one plant had a fire.
The plant, which had the capacity to power 1.1 million houses,
was suddenly shut down. "You have 25 percent of the nuclear
capacity in California disappear in one instant," he says.
"You have no other technology that's as vulnerable to instant
self-destruction. Now they're talking about building more of them.
Are they nuts?"
Not only are nuclear power plants unreliable, they are also
extremely hazardous, as Russians near Chernobyl can testify. And
no one has come up with a safe method of dealing with the tens
of thousands of tons of radioactive waste these plants produce.
Two days after Cheney's speech in favor of more nuclear plants,
Reuters News Service reported that two trucks had collided on
a Canadian highway, spilling radioactive iridium. "This is
a very important moment to see a big accident on the roads and
to think about the Implications of shipping all that waste across
the United States," says Wasserman. "What more do we
have to learn about nuclear power? It' the most expensive technological
failure in American history."
One solution is public control of power. Regulation came around
at the turn of the last century because the public was extremely
angry about being gouged by the utility companies. When Cleveland
took over the city's utilities, the mayor, Tom Johnson, said:
"I believe in municipal ownership of these monopolies because
if you do not own them, they will in time own you. They will destroy
your politics, corrupt your institutions, and, finally, destroy
your liberties." That is as true today as it was back then.
Now the cities to emulate are Los Angeles and Sacramento, which,
because they have public utilities, weathered the so-called crisis
without charging their customers overly high rates. (See Rachel
Brahinsky's "Public Power: A Way Out of California's Crisis,"
in the March issue.) "The real answer to the Bush plan is
for the public to take over the utility districts and to circumvent
the power companies," says Wasserman.
Another solution is to rely on clean, renewable sources of
energy. Opinion surveys conducted by the Sustainable Energy Coalition
have shown that 62 percent of Americans believe renewable energy
should receive priority in federal funding and that fossil fuels
and nuclear power should be subject to budget cuts. And in early
May, a report from five government laboratories said that "a
government-led efficiency program emphasizing new research and
incentives to adopt new technologies could reduce the growth in
electricity demand by between 20 percent and 47 percent,"
according to The New York Times.
Wind power, closely followed by solar, has developed from
a 1970s question mark into a realistic, cheap, and quick way to
"Germany and Denmark are cranking" on wind power,
says Greenpeace's Davies. "After birthing both the wind and
modern solar industries, we've totally lost the edge."
Wind power now costs only 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Nuclear
power simply cannot compete.
"In the five years it would take to build a nuclear power
plant, we could build all the wind farms we would ever need,"
Wasserman says. "There's enough wind between the Mississippi
and the Rockies to power the entire West, if not the entire United
States." In fact, wind power is now cheaper than any other
form of energy except for brown coal, Wasserman writes in a recent
op-ed for the Progressive Media Project. And it doesn't pollute
the air and water.
Davies foresees a new rural economy based on renewable energies
like wind and solar. "Some farmers in Iowa and Minnesota
are making more money selling wind than they do selling crops,"
"There is a huge economic growth bonanza waiting in alternative
energy," as Jack Doyle, author of Taken for a Ride: Detroits
Big Three and the Politics of Pollution (Four Walls, Eight Windows,
2000), points out in another recent op-ed for the Progressive
Media Project. "Global 500 firm Asea Brown Boveri advertises
'fields of windmills . . . at competitive prices.' Photovoltaic
solar panels, too, are becoming more competitive every day. British
Petroleum is selling these. And some newer technologies, like
the fuel cell, could be truly revolutionary, not only for cars
and trucks, but also for stationary users."
Energy efficiency is easier, and cheaper, to come by than
it used to be. Many shops currently stock energy efficient light
bulbs and appliances. The new hybrid automobiles, the Honda Insight
and the Toyota Prius, which combine gas with electricity and get
between sixty and seventy miles to the gallon, are now for sale.
Although Toyota is manufacturing only a limited number of the
vehicles, as The Washington Post reported on May 3, the Prius
is popular enough that dealers now have five-month waiting lists.
And these technologies make even more sense if you figure
in the public health and environmental costs of sticking with
the dirty old favorites. "Our vision is a future where clean
energy provides not only energy security but freedom from global
warming and freedom from big bills," says Davies.
But the Bush Administration doesn't want to hear about that.
"Home appliance energy standards, including those issued
since 1997, will save enough energy by 2010 to light every home
in the country for two years, according to former Energy Secretary
Bill Richardson," writes Doyle. "Bush, meanwhile, is
about to roll back energy-efficiency standards for central air
conditioners that would require them to run on 30 percent less
electricity by 2006."
The United States has not chosen to invest the kind of money
in renewable energy and green technology that would make a more
energy-secure and environmentally safe future for all of us. Instead,
it has subsidized and promoted the most environmentally unsound
energy sources. "The tax breaks and government assistance
to the fossil fuel infrastructure is immense," says Davies.
"The true cost of oil is buried. Consumers never pay the
According to the International Center for Technology Assessment,
external costs such as tax breaks, extraction and production subsidies,
protection services (including Defense Department spending), and
environmental, health, and social costs total $558.7 billion to
$1.69 trillion each year. "When added to the retail price
of gasoline," says the center, the result is "a per
gallon price of $5.60 to $15.14."
That cost is now going up with the Bush-Cheney Administration,
which is orchestrating an energy grab. It's a get-it-fast, get-it-while-it-lasts
approach that only a government of, by, and for the energy companies