Monday, January 23, 2006

An energy policy designed to win the war against terror

While some organizations such as the IAGS have long been talking about the strong link between energy and security, few in the press and in the government have yet publicly acknowledged it or even promoted any real energy policies aimed at reducing our dependence on oil.

Fortunately, it seems that the press is finally starting to understand how reducing our dependence on oil may be the single most effective thing that we can do to win the war against terror.

Thomas Friedman recently published a column called ‘It’s not easy being green, but it’s what our nation must do’, in which he acknowledged that the biggest threat to America is petrolism: “The biggest threat to America and its values today is not communism, authoritarianism or Islamism. It’s petrolism… Petrolism is the politics of using oil income to buy off one’s citizens with subsidies and government jobs, using oil and gas exports to intimidate or buy off one’s enemies, and using oil profits to build up one’s internal security forces and army to keep oneself ensconced in power — without any transparency or checks and balances”.

Friedman continues, “Our energy gluttony fosters and strengthens various kinds of petrolist regimes. It emboldens authoritarian petrolism in Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Sudan and Central Asia. It empowers Islamist petrolism in Sudan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. It even helps sustain communism in Castro’s Cuba, which survives today in part thanks to cheap oil from Venezuela. Most of these petrolist regimes would have collapsed long ago, having proved utterly incapable of delivering a modern future for their people, but they were saved by our energy excesses…No matter what happens in Iraq, we cannot dry up the swamps of authoritarianism and violent Islamism in the Middle East without also drying up our consumption of oil — thereby bringing down the price of crude… We need a president and a Congress with the guts not just to invade Iraq, but to impose a gasoline tax and inspire conservation at home. That takes a real energy policy with long-term incentives for renewable energies — wind, solar, biofuels — rather than the welfare-for-oil-companies-and-special-interests that masqueraded last year as an energy bill”.

In a column published yesterday in the LA Times, Ronald Brownstein claims that “U.S. energy policy ought to send Iran a lasting message”. As we all know, “one reason Iran is brushing off international condemnation of its nuclear program so defiantly is that its leaders apparently believe they have the world over a barrel”. And our reactions (or lack of) are obviously comforting them in their belief. “If the world blinks from imposing sanctions for defiance now, Iran's leaders might conclude that their oil threat will deter real penalties at each future step in the confrontation. That's a formula for disaster. As Bayh put it, ‘If we knuckle under’ to oil blackmail today, ‘tomorrow it could be nuclear-weapons-based blackmail, and that is a place we cannot allow ourselves to go. Withholding its oil supplies would be painful for Iran: Oil accounts for about 80% of its exports and about half of its government revenue. But no one should pretend an embargo would be painless for the U.S.”

Let’s face it, we have not done anything to curb our reliance on oil, and our consumption and imports are far worse than they were at the time of 1973 oil shocks. “Since the first oil shocks in the 1970s, the U.S., inexcusably, has allowed its dependence on oil imports to grow, from about a third then to about three-fifths now. Fuel economy for America's vehicles is virtually no better today than it was 15 years ago, according to federal figures, as small fuel-efficiency gains in passenger cars have been offset by a shift toward gas-guzzling trucks and sport utility vehicles. Washington hasn't raised fuel-economy standards for passenger cars in two decades. More expensive gas will encourage somewhat more conservation and greater demand for fuel-efficient cars. But Washington can't rely on the hidden hand alone to solve the problems it has been too timid to tackle. The federal Energy Information Administration, in its most recent long-range projection, estimated that market pressures would increase automotive fuel efficiency only modestly over the next quarter-century. As a result, the EIA projects that by 2030, the U.S. will import 62% of its oil, up from 58% now. That means another generation of subsidizing — and remaining vulnerable to — regimes that threaten our security”, writes Brownstein.

”That's why the energy bill Bush pushed through Congress last summer was such a disappointment. Tilted mostly toward subsidizing domestic producers, the legislation contained some incentives for efficiency. But it also extended a legal loophole that allows automakers to claim greater fuel economy than they achieve. The net result, according to calculations by the nonpartisan Alliance to Save Energy, is that the bill will reduce America's dependence on foreign oil by a grand total of: nothing. Zip. Zero. If Iran's belligerent threats of oil blackmail are not a fire bell in the night warning America to do better, what will be? Increasing energy efficiency, and reducing dependence on foreign oil, should be as much a cause for neoconservatives concerned about preserving American autonomy in the world as it is for environmentalists worried about global warming. A grand domestic compromise could bundle together tougher fuel economy standards; mandates (sweetened with incentives) for auto manufacturers to build more high-mileage vehicles and for utilities to generate more electricity with renewable energy; and expanded access for producers to some environmentally sensitive domestic supplies. Such a declaration of energy independence would send Iran, and all other unfriendly regimes in the Middle East, as strong a message as the sanctions Tehran's nuclear defiance is inviting”, concludes Brownstein.

Let’s hope their messages are heard…

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