Fossil Fools

Multinational Monitor magazine, June 2001


For at least three decades, it has been clear to anyone who cares to examine the evidence that renewable energy sources-solar and wind-plus energy efficiency are eminently capable of meeting both the U.S. and the world's energy needs, and that relatively small investments would make these emerging technologies competitive with and soon cheaper than dirty fossil fuels and the Russian Roulette of nuclear power.

The growing understanding of the onset of global warming and its potentially disastrous consequences has eliminated any choice about the matter. The world must go clean and green, or its very future is in jeopardy

At the turn of the new millennium, wind power is already competitive with fossil fuels, solar is competitive for some applications and with a little prodding would be cheaper for most uses. Investments in efficiency have long been, and remain, the most cost-effective way of matching energy supply and demand.

Now along comes Dick Cheney. As head of the White House's National Energy Policy Development Group, the former oil construction company chief has issued a clarion call to action: More of the same! More of the same!

Cheney's troglodytic national energy strategy pays lip service to renewables and energy efficiency, but primarily calls for a major step-up in fossil fuel and nuclear energy production.

The National Energy Policy Development Group recommends a corporate welfare bonanza for the fossil fuel and nuclear companies. The proposals: give away federal properties, create new tax breaks and subsidies for the energy barons, waste government monies on greenwashing programs for dirty energy technologies, remove environmental regulations that the oil, gas and coal companies find annoying, and further deregulate the electricity markets (the very thing that brought on the California energy "crisis," which in turn created the impetus for Cheney's energy review.) Among its specific recommendations, the Cheney group proposes:

* Opening federal lands, offshore properties and the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling;

* Repealing existing federal regulations on electric utilities, and entirely deregulating the electricity markets;

* Pouring money into the Orwellian "clean coal" program-a welfare program for King Coal that is supposed to reduce the environmental impacts of coal burning; and

* "The expansion of nuclear energy in the United States as a major component of our national energy policy"-by ramming through applications for new nuclear plants without adequate safety reviews, pushing relicensing of plants that reach the end of their license terms, renewing the government-run liability cap for nuclear disasters, and placing responsibility for nuclear waste disposal on the federal government.

It is hard to find anything in the Cheney proposals which might offend Big Business. Vehicle fuel efficiency has remained flat in the United States over the last decade, thanks to the rise of SW's and the refusal of the Clinton administration and Republican Congress to stiffen auto fuel efficiency (CAFE) requirements. Surely any review of national energy policy would recommend some corrective response ... but not the Cheney review. Instead, it manages this stunning evasion: The Secretary of Transportation should "review and provide recommendations on establishing Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards with due consideration of the National Academy of Sciences study to be released in July 2001. Responsibly crafted CAFE standards should increase efficiency without negatively impacting the U.S. automotive industry. The determination of future fuel economy standards must therefore be addressed analytically and based on sound science."

Obviously, this Big Business wish list must be rejected. If you're heading toward a cliff, it does not make sense to drive straight ahead and push the accelerator to the floor.

What is crucial is the path of resistance. If environmentalists and the Democratic caucus argue that the Bush/Cheney plan goes too far, and must be moderated, then even if they win, we all lose.

The last U.S. energy crisis offers important lessons. The grassroots movements of the 1970s successfully defeated the nuclear industry, which has not built a new plant in the United States in two decades. The rise in energy prices spurred a significant shift to more efficient technologies. But the big energy companies successfully derailed calls for a new emphasis on renewables and a decentralized energy system.

Now those demands must be reiterated. Guiding principles for a sensible energy strategy include:

* Major public investments in and support for solar, fuel cell and other renewable technologies, so these clean technologies finally break through-and then rapidly begin to displace conventional fuels;

* Massive expansion of public and especially municipal power systems, with an emphasis on efficiency, consumer empowerment and decentralization;

* Technology-forcing regulations: efficiency standards should be based not on what is now possible (best available technologies) but on ambitious goals that industry will meet if the government and public demands them through legally binding regulations that stick;

* Stop sprawl and support mass transit: the super-sprawl which the United States has witnessed over the last decade has diminished quality of life, deepened the nation's car dependence and energy devoted to transportation; it must be replaced by renewed investment in urban areas, more compact cities and strongly enhanced public transit systems.

This is obviously not a program that the Bush administration will embrace. But the polar extreme of the administration's proposal creates the opportunity for a popular mobilization around an energy strategy that truly is, as Cheney likes to say, "reliable, affordable and environmentally sound."

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