The Multinational Monitor


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Bush's National Energy Policy

Laying the Groundwork for the Next War

by Alexandra Allen

When Saddam Hussein put forward an offer on February 15 to withdraw from Kuwait under certain conditions, President George Bush termed the offer a "cruel hoax," and repeated his call for an unconditional withdrawal. And so the soldiers resumed a war which most of the world cannot help but recognize was fought over oil--a finite resource that is itself imperiling the survival of life on the planet.

This tragic irony makes it abundantly clear that unless the energy economy of the United States and other industrialized countries changes dramatically, the world is headed for a bleak future of oil wars, oil spills, global warming and polluted air and water. But if anyone thought that President Bush's recently proposed "National Energy Strategy" (NES) would chart the course toward a sensible and sustainable energy future, it is they who have fallen prey to what can truly be called a cruel hoax.

The energy plan that President Bush announced on February 20 is draped in the language of "increasing energy and economic efficiency," "securing future energy supplies," "respecting the environment" and "preserving the free market." Behind the technocratic jargon and nods toward environmental concerns lies the reality that the Bush plan makes no serious effort to wean the United States away from its fossil fuel dependency. As Peg Stevenson, director of the Greenpeace Atmosphere and Energy Campaign, says, "The plan ignores energy efficiency, continues to define energy security as access to oil and fails to embody an understanding of the environment, let alone any respect for it. The rhetoric about the free market is simply a euphemism for protecting major corporate interests in the fossil fuel and nuclear industries."

The development of the National Energy Strategy was initiated by Bush in June 1989, when he called on the Department of Energy (DOE) to begin a "dialogue with the American people" on energy and to develop energy policy recommendations for the nation. DOE held 18 public hearings around the country and heard from 448 witnesses, the majority of whom were from energy corporations. While many national environmental groups testified at the hearings, few local citizens' organizations participated. In some cases, witness lists were finalized by DOE before the hearing was even announced publicly. The domination of industry witnesses did not blunt the widespread support for improved energy efficiency, however. DOE officials acknowledged in an interim report on the National Energy Strategy that the "single loudest message" they heard was the call for improved efficiency. That call, it is now clear, was ignored.

More of the same

The outstanding feature of the Bush National Energy Strategy is its lack of new direction, its clear resolve to avoid any significant move toward an energy future based on efficient use of energy and renewable energy sources. Three key elements of the Bush Strategy illustrate the commitment to an energy economy based on the wasteful use of fossil fuels and nuclear power.

First, the provisions ostensibly aimed at energy efficiency are actually likely to increase energy use. For example, as Leon Lowery of Environmental Action explains, "Supposedly in the name of promoting competition in the utility business, Bush is proposing to free wholesale electric generators from the Public Utilities Holding Company Act. This would mean that any company that wanted to could build an electric generating plant, and sell electricity wholesale to utilities (but not to consumers, i.e. retail) and be outside the normal state utility regulatory process." Thus if Westinghouse, a nuclear plant manufacturer, wanted to operate its own nuclear facility and sell the electricity it generated to a utility, it could. The Bush administration defines this as "efficient," because it will promote competition in the electricity generating field; it will do nothing to reduce overall energy used and improve energy efficiency, however. In fact, as Lowery notes, the Bush proposal "raises a host of consumer issues, including loss of accountability, as well as environmental issues because it undermines incentives to meet electricity demand with efficiency rather than new production. This plan is emphatically anti-efficiency. It would create a major new outlet for the urge to build and sell electricity."

Bush has completely ignored true energy efficiency strategies. Yet technologies are available that could more than double the energy efficiency of appliances, lighting, electric motors, space heating, electrical generation and industrial processes. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that U.S. electricity use could be cut in half at a savings of $50 billion dollars per year without any reduction in standard of living. Due largely to improvements in energy efficiency, U.S. energy consumption has held virtually steady over the last 15 years even though the economy has grown by nearly 40 percent. "Bush's plan ignores this record, and the even greater potential offered by efficiency," says Lowery.

The proposal's second key element is the pursuit of "energy security," the leading element of which is the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling by oil companies. In a plan released just weeks before the National Energy Strategy, Bush made clear his intention to spur offshore oil production as well. In addition, the administration plan would continue tax credits for the domestic oil and gas industry, and provide a variety of new forms of "regulatory relief" for those industries.

This approach ignores the inescapable fact that unless oil consumption in the United States is reduced, the nation's reliance on oil from the Middle East and other parts of the world will continue. Two-thirds of all the known oil reserves in the world lie in the Middle East. Only 4 percent lie in North America. According to Dorothy Smith, of the Greenpeace Ocean Ecology Campaign, "The Department of Interior's own analyses project that undeveloped U.S. offshore reserves and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge combined hold no more than two years worth of oil at current rates of consumption. But Bush seems to think that by sacrificing these areas to oil production, he can please his friends in the oil business and fool the public into thinking that he's got an energy strategy worthy of the name."

Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would have its own high environmental costs. The air pollution, toxic spillage and solid waste production normally associated with oil drilling could devastate the fragile arctic ecosystem. "Puffing up large- scale oil developments there will ruin the refuge, " says Larry Landry of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. "Wildlife populations will very likely take it on the chin," he adds.

The third prong of the waste-more, supply-more strategy is a "revitalization" of nuclear power. The nuclear power plant licensing process and nuclear waste disposal are identified as key impediments to such a revitalization. Under the Bush plan, licensing would be made easier and speedier by cutting citizens out of the process. While nuclear power plants must currently go through a public permitting process for both a construction permit (before the plant is built) and an operating permit (after the plant is built but before start-up), Bush would grant the nuclear industry's long-held wish for "one-step" licensing--eliminating the post-construction licensing process. Streamlining the licensing process would limit options for anti-nuclear activists who have used it to expose nuclear plant deficiencies and safety hazards. "The one-step provision is blatantly anti-democratic," says Scott Denman, Executive Director of the Safe Energy Communications Council. "Decisions about energy production and use that directly affect the public already suffer from too little citizen participation--not too much."

"Bush's proposal on nuclear waste is equally dangerous," adds Denman. "He is proposing to unravel the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act which barred the creation of new temporary waste storage sites until a permanent repository is found. With no permanent repository yet sited, the result of removing that prohibition will be to create new de facto permanent waste sites without the oversight and site-selection criteria that would otherwise be required."

Energy alternatives, George Bush-style

According to the National Energy Strategy, the United States does have at least one abundant renewable energy resource-- garbage. While the administration ultimately rejected a temporary tax credit for producers of solar, wind, geothermal and bio-mass energy which had been included in all of the NES drafts, garbage burning will be researched and promoted under the plan. "It's ludicrous," says Stevenson of Greenpeace. "Burning garbage wastes energy by destroying resources that could be reused and recycled, and poisons the environment. Meanwhile, legitimate renewable resources are under-utilized and underdeveloped because they are trying to compete in a marketplace with heavily subsidized fossil-fuel and nuclear sources."

Stevenson contrasts the U.S. approach with that of other countries, which "have gotten the message that the energy future is in efficiency and renewables, and are promoting investment in that direction. If government and businesses in this country won't recognize that reality," she says, "we will be left behind by nations that do." Her point is illustrated by trends in the world market for photovoltaic cells (PV), a market which is doubling every three years. In 1980, the U.S. share of the world PV market was 75 percent. By 1988, it had fallen to 32 percent. Japan's share increased from 15 percent in 1980 to 37 percent in 1988.

Though two thirds of the nation's petroleum consumption occurs in the transportation sector, the only alternative proposed by Bush in this area is to require automobile fleets to use alcohol fuels. The 175 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads use over 300 million gallons of gas each day. The energy wasted by cars and trucks is enormous. Cars in the United States get 20 miles to the gallon, on average; raising that average to 32 miles per gallon would save as much oil as the United States imports from the entire Middle East. Yet, Bush kept any increase in the automobile fuel efficiency requirements out of his energy plan. Support for transit and land-use planning that could actually reduce reliance on the automobile is wholly absent as well.

Bush's transportation plan, announced shortly before the NES, would actually increase motor vehicle use. "We must not forget that oil is a reason why our valiant men and women find themselves fighting and dying in the Persian Gulf war," says Ruth Caplan, Executive Director of Environmental Action. "Yet the President can only speak of 'a new national highway system,' while maintaining his staunch opposition to higher fuel- efficiency standards for our cars. It's a recipe for continued oil gluttony."

Bush's disdain for real energy alternatives continues a pattern set when Ronald Reagan took office [see "The Auto's Assault on the Atmosphere," Multinational Monitor, January/February 1990]. Instead of maintaining the energy efficiency and renewable energy programs begun under Jimmy Carter, the Reagan and Bush administrations:

  • Cut funding for research and development of solar and other renewable energy technologies at the federal Department of Energy by 85 percent between 1980 and 1990;
  • Cut federal funding for mass transit by half from 1981 to 1989; and
  • Granted automobile companies' petitions to weaken car fuel efficiency requirements in 1986, 1987 and 1989. In addition, Bush successfully fought for the defeat of a Senate bill last September that would have increased auto fuel-efficiency by more than 40 percent.

To change the course

The political contours of the debate over the National Energy Strategy have already been set. When a near-final draft of the NES was leaked in early February, oil industry executives quickly acknowledged their pleasure. Douglas G. Elmets, spokesperson for ARCO, told the New York Times that, "If this is as described, it certainly sounds very positive, not only for the industry, but for the consumer." Environmentalists blasted the plan, and some members of Congress, such as Senators Albert Gore, D-TN, and Tim Wirth, D-CO, indicated their opposition.

But the Bush plan has set the terms of the debate, and the U.S. Congress' track record of taking on the oil, auto, coal, utility, nuclear and highway lobbies is quite poor. Congress' inability to stand up to corporate interests and do what is best for the United States and the world was illustrated again last year when it watered down the Clean Air Act to the point where actually achieving clean air became a goal for decades hence, not a genuine political objective. While the Congress this year may well add a few efficiency measures, and blunt some of the worst proposals in the Bush plan, that will not be enough to produce what is really needed: a dramatic redirection of America's energy economy.

Such a change will only come from a broad and powerful movement, broader and more powerful than the existing environmental movement. It will have to be active regionally and locally as well as nationally. It will have to include businesses that want to cut their energy bills through conservation; farmers that want to cut their costs and unhook from energy-intensive, chemical-intensive farming methods; local citizens who want to prevent their communities from being carved apart by new highways; community groups who are already active on toxics issues and who recognize that the flipside of petro-chemicals is petro-energy; and the many people who were forced by the Persian Gulf War to recognize that "security" will come neither from weapons nor from oil, but from a more self-reliant economy and an understanding of global interdependence. The task is as enormous as it is vital, but the world cannot afford a delay.

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