Columns » Ernest Dumas

What about energy?


President Bush's war to turn Iraq into a client state is sucking up national treasure, eroding the country's will, despoiling its honor among nations, swelling the wave of terrorism into a floodtide, destabilizing the whole Middle East and heightening the perils from North Korea and Iran, regimes far more radical and dangerous than Iraq. Could any issue be more important to the nation's long-term safety and prosperity? Believe it or not, yes. The country ought to be demanding that Bush and Senator Kerry talk about energy at least as much as Iraq and terrorism. The issues are barely separable and, for Bush actually, they are one and the same. Iraq is his energy policy, or a good part of it. Frank Lambright, a retired insurance executive, asked in a letter to the Times the other day if anyone thought we would be fighting in Iraq if its chief resource were not oil and Saddam Hussein were just another ruthless desert despot. Forty-dollar-a-barrel oil got people's attention momentarily this summer, but the country cannot be persuaded to be concerned about events much beyond the first of the year. Bush, after all, promises that everything will be all right in January when Iraq becomes a democratic nation. But if Bush's energy policy prevails, $40-a-barrel oil will soon be a sweet dream as China and other rising Asian nations match the U.S. appetite for the world's static oil reserves. Bush does have an energy policy. It uses some of the same catchphrases as Kerry's policy - "energy independence," for instance. But the devil is in the details and in their respective records. Bush's policy is to continue doing the same thing, protecting the tax breaks and subsidies that favor oil and gas over alternative fuels and producing more oil and gas in the United States, mainly in the Alaskan wildlife preserves. Kerry, who has a long record on energy, would move the country decidedly toward conservation and new and cleaner energy sources. Oh, Bush does offer one futuristic innovation. He proposes much greater funding of research into hydrogen fuel cells for transportation. But that technology is at least 20 years away and is a fig leaf for continuing to expand the consumption of oil for transportation. Here is the essential problem: The United States uses a fourth of all the oil consumed on earth, though China is catching up fast, but we own only about 3 percent of the earth's reserves. Despoiling Alaska's slopes will not help that ratio much. The energy bill that has stalled in the Congress the past two years is a fair reflection of Bush's policy, although not all the obscene giveaways that Congress stuffed in the bill can be laid at his door. But it does virtually nothing with conservation, which reflects the president's priorities. Bush's favorite philosopher, Darrell Royal, laid down the rule that "you dance with who brung ya." The petroleum industry brought Bush where he is today, and Royal's apostles wouldn't fault Bush for staying with big oil, Halliburton and Enron. Add the automakers to the escorts. As of August, executives of the automakers were giving to Bush's campaign over Kerry's by a ratio of 17 to 1. In 2002, Kerry and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tried to amend the energy bill to raise the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards for new cars to 42 miles per gallon through 2015. If it had passed, it would have saved 2 million barrels of oil a day, nearly what we import from the Persian Gulf. The passage of the CAFE standards in 1975 dramatically reduced U.S. dependence on foreign oil - for a time. But the standards have not been raised since 1990 although the technology is available for Detroit to produce cars that would get more than 40 mpg while improving safety. The average fuel economy on U.S. highways is now at a 22-year low. Kerry would give the industry incentives to retrofit their factories for more efficient gas usage and for hybrids. That step alone would reduce dependence on foreign oil, sharply improve the nations nation's trade balance, clean the air we breathe, dramatically lower the emission of global-warming greenhouse gases and sharply reduce people's gasoline costs. How can you beat a deal like that? Bush has not taken a clear stand on raising CAFE standards, but in Michigan the Republicans are trying to drive auto workers into the Bush camp by saying that Kerry's policies on car efficiency would cost them jobs. Another tip-off is that his Transportation Department, which has the power to raise the efficiency standards for light trucks (SUVs, etc.), which now are 50 percent of the market, raised it last year by 1.5 miles a gallon effective in 2007, which is considerably less than Detroit was willing to do voluntarily. But here is the fundamental distinction between the candidates. Bush thinks an energy policy is something that ought to maximize the benefits for the energy industry. Kerry would be no scourge of the oil companies and carmakers, but he at least imagines that the objects of an energy policy should be the people and the nation's security.

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