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 Change.

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, and strife.

"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 views "Neanderthal."

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 to Gore.

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 supply power.

"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," he observes.

"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 true cost."

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 could propose.

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