Talk in Washington about “cap and trade” as a way to curb carbon emissions has evaporated like a greenhouse gas. Now, with gasoline prices nearing $4 a gallon and job creation a top priority, there’s talk only of offshore drilling, nuclear power, and domestic shale gas.
That new reality was signaled Wednesday when President Obama spelled out his vision on energy in a speech. Forced to adjust to a GOP-controlled House, he offered a grab bag of solutions, hoping to find a middle ground to achieve any sort of legislative victory on energy.
Like most presidents since the 1973 oil crisis, Mr. Obama may be stymied on the grand issues of energy security, let alone preventing further climate change caused by fossil fuels. Making peace with Republicans on energy policy may not be possible. But at the very least the president has made a savvy move to position himself as an energy activist. He’s also staked out a position that can revive and redirect a national debate.
Conflict and revolutions shaking the oil-rich Middle East, the April anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill, and the ongoing nuclear plant crisis in Japan all remind Americans of the challenges tied to producing energy. And rising gas prices are weighing on Americans, emptying their wallets and threatening the economic recovery.
In his speech at Georgetown University, the president called for the US to cut oil imports by one-third by 2025. He also reiterated a goal made in his State of the Union speech to generate 80 percent of the nation’s electricity from “clean energy” sources by 2035.
These goals recognize that weaning the US off foreign oil is a long-term struggle that will go on far beyond his presidency. It’s also a problem that existed long before he arrived. President Carter once called the fight for energy independence “the moral equivalent of war” and created the Department of Energy.
Today’s debate needs to be much broader than the knee-jerk criticisms voiced by Republicans over offshore oil leases or by those Democrats from states with strong interests in coal. More drilling offshore won’t reduce foreign imports by much and the current methods of using coal must change.
What can work? Efforts to find environmentally safe ways to use other abundant energy resources such as nuclear, natural gas, and perhaps even coal – if its carbon emissions can be captured and stored.
And if oil prices stay high long enough – either by market pressure or by raising the fuel tax – then renewables such as solar, wind, and geothermal may get a boost. But the day when such sources can bear the brunt of US energy needs is still far off. They will become even more attractive when the environmental costs of using coal and oil – in lives and money – are truly accounted for.
The best energy investments are in efficiency and conservation. Besides the moves toward more fuel-efficient vehicles, the US is adopting “smart meters” in homes that show the real-time cost of electricity as it is consumed. And the administration plans to announce first-ever fuel-saving standards for heavy-duty trucks and to hike the current fuel-efficiency standard for future cars. Electric vehicles and investment in high-speed rail and mass transit in densely populated regions would cut America’s reliance on oil for transportation.
This budget-conscious Congress may not be ready to make big, long-term investments that would cut America’s oil dependency through federal incentives. But the economy needs such investments, as other countries have discovered. China now tops the world in developing wind power. Germany leads in deploying solar power. Japan dominates production of hybrid gas-electric cars. Brazil runs half its vehicles on biofuels.
The energy sources of the future are being developed elsewhere. America needs to do more than drill for oil in response.