When President Bush unveiled his “Advanced Energy Initiative” during his State of the Union address, it was heartening to hear him admit that America is “addicted to oil” from the Middle East. It was also a sign of progress that he did not use the words “FreedomCAR” or “FutureGen” in the speech, two ideas from his initiative that sound more like rides at Disney World than promising research projects. Now if someone would just explain to the president that technology is not the same thing as magic, we might someday see the United States adopt an intelligent energy policy.
Unfortunately, the president’s initiative is all about touting the miracle of technology. According to Bush, America’s energy problems have nothing to do with consumer gluttony, corrupt politics or the lobbying influence of Big Oil. No, the energy crisis is the result of not coughing up enough of our hard-earned tax dollars to help companies like ExxonMobil, with its paltry $36 billion in profits last year, fund basic research. Bush wants to give government scientists just shy of $1 billion next year to pursue their brilliant ideas in two areas: how we power our homes and businesses, and how we power our cars. But a closer look reveals that the president’s proposal is a fake solution that does almost nothing to decrease our dependence on oil from the Middle East — and actually encourages Americans to continue burning coal and blasting around in SUVs for another fifteen years, until technology arrives to save the day. Consider the president’s efforts in three key areas:
COAL Much of Bush’s plan focuses on the energy we use at home and work. But such power comes primarily from electricity, which has virtually nothing to do with our dependence on oil. About half of America’s electricity is generated by burning coal — and the largest recipient of money under the president’s initiative is Big Coal. The president earmarks $281 million for “clean coal” technologies that help power plants reduce pollution. Cleaning up coal is a laudable goal, but Bush could accomplish that simply by enforcing existing clean-air laws. Instead, he has rolled them back, allowing aging coal plants to keep operating without penalty and weakening proposed rules for mercury emissions.
The president also calls for spending $54 million for FutureGen, his much-hyped public-private partnership to build a zero-emission coal plant fifteen years down the road. Better known in the industry as “NeverGen,” the project is a boondoggle disguised as a Dr. Strangelove-type effort to transform dirty coal into clean energy. FutureGen may make sense as basic research, but as a solution to America’s current energy problems, it’s a joke. The technology already exists to build near-zero-emission coal plants — it’s called coal gasification with carbon capture and storage. But if Bush were to tout gasification, Big Coal would have to change its fossil-hardened ways and actually build some of these new plants instead of just talking about them — a task they are loath to take on.
WIND AND SOLAR Unlike Big Coal, renewable energy is actually an industry that could use a little government help, if only to level the playing field against massive coal and nuclear subsidies. But when it comes to clean sources of energy, Bush’s initiative suddenly gets stingy, offering up only $192 million for wind and solar energy combined — barely half the money provided for coal, and less than the price tag of a single F/A-22 fighter plane. If Bush really wants to boost renewable energy, he could press for regulatory changes to allow small generators to hook up more easily to the transmission grid, and implement “net metering” to allow more individuals who invest in alternative energy to sell electricity back to the grid — in effect, turning everyone into a power company.
Even better, Bush could skip all the talk about clean coal and solar panels and simply declare that he supports caps on carbon-dioxide emissions. He wouldn’t have to buy into the Kyoto treaty — all he would have to do is say, “Global warming is real, and we’re going to deal with it by getting serious about cutting greenhouse gases.” That simple proclamation would spark a stampede of investment in low-carbon energy sources that would dwarf the $1 billion Bush is coughing up. With a few blunt words — something that wouldn’t cost a dime and would involve no economic planning — the president could unleash the kind of free-market solution favored by Republicans and create tens of thousands of new jobs at the same time.
HYDROGEN Bush’s strategy to change how we power our vehicles is similarly distorted. The biggest hunk of pork — $289 million — is devoted to hydrogen. The problem with hydrogen is not that it won’t work but that it’s a solution that is, at best, twenty or thirty years down the road. Technology that might really be useful in the near term, such as better batteries for plug-in hybrids, gets only $30 million. To his credit, the president wants to spend $150 million to develop cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel made from switch-grass, wood chips and other plant fiber that shows some promise as a renewable energy source. But like most of Bush’s plan, ethanol is a futuristic solution for a problem that is already here, and growing by the minute. Bush could curb oil consumption tomorrow by imposing tougher fuel-efficiency standards on vehicles — a move he has steadfastly opposed because Detroit fears it would cut into sales of trucks and SUVs.
The single best way for Bush to solve the energy crisis has nothing to do with whiz-bang technology. America is addicted to oil because, even at three dollars a gallon, gas is too cheap — and the best way to change that is by raising the price through a gas tax. Even more than mandating fuel-efficient cars, raising the price of gas would create a demand for public transportation and force us to factor in the true price of our oil addiction, rather than burying it beneath tax breaks and hidden subsidies that perpetuate the absurd illusion that access to cheap gas is the God-given right of all Americans.
By encouraging such fantasies, Bush is doing nothing to prepare Americans for the hard times we will soon face when the oil runs dry and Katrina-size hurricanes are an annual event. But there’s a lesson to be learned from how he’s ducking the crisis. In America, we’re used to thinking of new technology as an engine of progress. But as Bush’s energy initiative shows, technology works just as well as an engine of the status quo.