Energy Independence

Kerry's energy plan and the much needed national energy policy overhaul...

| Wed Aug. 11, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

Senator John Kerry's pledge that his administration is " going to reach for energy independence, we are going to create the jobs of the future because I want America's security to depend on Americas ingenuity and creativity, not the Saudi royal family" resonates across party lines. Increasingly, so does the argument that U.S. dependence on the Middle East oil was at least partly responsible for the now unpopular decision to invade Iraq. Not since the OPEC-oil embargo has the nation's energy policy has been so prominently on the minds of voters and with oil trading at $45 a barrel, the recent relief from May's record gasoline prices may not last long. So it was about time, when last week, Kerry at last laid out the specifics of his energy policy.

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Kerry's $30 billion plan aims to decrease energy demand through fuel efficiency and investment in the alternatives to fossil fuels. It contrasts sharply with Bush's energy policy, which has focused on shoring up gas and oil supplies abroad and at home by drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge. The Bush administration -- in a rare emulation of the French -- also wants more nuclear power plants built. Both presidential contenders agree on the need to subsidize clean coal and hydrogen fuel cell technologies. Of course, the much beloved gas-guzzling SUVs -- the most eye-soring embodiment of Americans' energy-wasting life-styles -- remain beyond reproach by both parties. But environmentalists can take some consolation in the knowledge that Kerry and Edwards are on a waiting list to buy not just any SUV, but a hybrid one. As Kerry put it:

"You want to drive a great big SUV? Terrific. Terrific. That's America… But don't you think it makes sense to be able to drive one that gets better fuel mileage and is more efficient and saves you money? That's all. That's all we're trying to do."

The Democrats have set out an ambitious -- and some say unrealistic -- goal that by the year 2020, 20 percent of America's motor fuel and electricity will come from biomass, solar, wind, and other renewables. To achieve this goal, Kerry -- in a move that is sure to please voters in farm swing states like Iowa -- Kerry has promised to invest $5 billion dollars in fuels derived from corn, soybeans, and other sources, mandating gasoline sellers to increase their shares of renewables. At the present time, renewables account for only 1.5 percent of the nation's motor fuel and 6 percent of electricity comes from renewables. $10 billion will go towards retooling car plants to produce energy-efficient vehicles, with up to $5,000 consumer credits to promote their sales. The plan invests another $10 billion in the development of clean coal and hydrogen fuel cell technologies. Unlike Bush, Kerry opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the creation of a permanent nuclear dump-site at Nevada's Yucca Mountain -- a stance that may help Kerry win that swing state. The energy plan is to be financed through existing government revenues from oil and gas, penalties on corporate polluters, and an estimated $2 billion dollars in government energy savings annually as a result of improvements in efficiency.

As have Democratic and Republican predecessors before him, Kerry has promised to do more to bring down oil prices, criticizing Bush for doing little to make good on his promise to "jawbone" the Saudis. But as a recent New York Times article points out, some within Kerry's team fear that his statements on Saudi Arabia may hinder future cooperation on energy policy and Iraq -- a disconcerting prospect given that the United States has no choice but to rely on Middle East oil as it transitions to alternative fuels. The fact of this continued future dependence sometimes lost in Kerry's declarations of energy independence, as does the reality that presidents can't do much in the here and now to influence world oil prices. Of course, the Saudis, over the decades, have gotten used to taking some beating during U.S. elections by both parties. As Nail al-Jubeir, spokesman for the Saudi Embassy told the New York Times:

"Things will be said in an election year, and we take it for what it is…These arguments tend to be what you find on a bumper sticker. People think Saudi-bashing is the answer to energy consumption, but we're not over here selling you S.U.V.'s or defeating fuel-efficiency standards."

Political instability in the Middle East is in part driving what some estimate to be a $10 dollar a barrel "terror premium," but regional instability is unlikely to melt away at the news of a Kerry victory. The current hike in world oil prices is as equally -- if not more so -- the result of high demand from India and China, Russian government's standoff with the oil-giant Lukoil, and the prospect of civil strife in Venezuela. Thus, Kerry's economic adviser Roger Altman's assertion that one "could see some improvement of energy prices quite quickly by virtue of a new president without all the baggage and a fresh start internationally" is overly optimistic.

Kerry has repeated numerous times that he wants Bush to stop adding supplies to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve -- which is used in times of national emergencies -- until prices come down, but this is one unwise call on Kerry's part. Though politically expedient, tinkering with the nation's emergency supplies in order to provide temporary relief to motorists grumbling at the pump is simply not worth it.

Whoever wins the presidential race, the United States will continue to be highly dependent on oil in the Middle East and other politically unstable areas, such as the Caspian, in the near-term. Troublingly, the Bush administrations seems all too comfortable with this current state affairs and its gestures in support of U.S. energy independence -- drilling in the Artic and extra nuclear power plants -- are the sort of solutions that create as many problems as they solve. Whether or not Kerry's ambitious 20 percent target can be reached, the plan's focus on renewables is much needed for the United States to insure its energy independence in the long-term. The plan also ought to appeal the numerous independents and moderate Republicans appalled by an administration that has been responsible for one of the worst environmental records in U.S. history -- and is bound to yet outdo itself, if given the chance to carry out its current energy plan. With the perils of the U.S. energy policy -- abroad and at home -- so vividly on the minds of voters, Kerry should use this unique opportunity to build support for a long-overdue policy overhaul.

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