Energy Independence

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


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
.

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.