President Bush’s plan to deal with what he called America’s oil addiction — as well as a detailed proposal released by the White House — won some praise Wednesday but also criticism from environmentalists who said it doesn’t go far enough and free-market advocates who said it is meddlesome.
The president called it his “Advanced Energy Initiative,” saying he would ask Congress for a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research “to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas” —buildings and vehicles.
“To change how we power our homes and offices,” he said, “we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy.
“We must also change how we power our automobiles,” he added. “We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.”
The White House later released a statement with details on what Bush would ask Congress for in his upcoming 2007 budget proposal. Among them:
- Coal. $281 million to develop clean coal technologies “to generate electricity while meeting environmental regulations at low cost.” And $54 million for a “FutureGen” project with the private sector to seek “an emissions-free coal plant that captures the carbon dioxide it produces and stores it in deep geologic formations.”
- Solar power. $148 million, more than double what was sought in 2006, “to accelerate the development of semiconductor materials that convert sunlight directly to electricity.”
- Wind power. $44 million for wind energy research — a $5 million increase over Bush's 2006 request.
- Ethanol. $150 million, a $59 million increase over 2006, to find a more efficient way to make ethanol, the gasoline alternative now made primarily from corn in the United States. The focus is to use plant fiber from farms that is currently discarded as waste. “Research scientists say that accelerating research into "cellulosic ethanol" can make it cost-competitive by 2012, offering the potential to displace up to 30 percent of the nation's current fuel use,” the White House said.
- Plug-in hybrids. $30 million, a $7 million increase over 2006, to develop higher capacity batteries for hybrids as well as “plug-in” hybrids that would allow drivers to charge vehicles and run on electric power only. “These vehicles will enable drivers to meet most of their urban commuting needs with virtually no gasoline use,” the White House said.
- Hydrogen. $289 million, a $53 million increase over 2006, to develop fuel cell vehicles that run on hydrogen “with no pollution or greenhouse gases.” Bush in 2003 launched a $1.2 billion hydrogen initiative and the White House said that “through the president's program, the cost of a hydrogen fuel cell has been cut by more than 50 percent in just four years.”
The positive reaction
Those seeing the proposal in a positive light included the head of the Solar Energy Industry Association.
“The president told the world that solar power will be an important component of energy in the U.S.,” SEIA President Rhone Resch, said in a statement. “This is the first president in 25 years to urge solar power development in the State of the Union.”
Steve Sawyer, climate policy expert at Greenpeace, emphasized that “the first step in curing an addiction is recognizing that you have a problem ... He’s stood up and taken the first step in the ‘oil-aholics’ program.”
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, called it “fairly positive ... The very mention of solar, wind and other clean energies is a huge step.”
“Whatever his arguments, he is making the right investments for the climate,” Schellnhuber said. “Maybe by the end of Bush’s term (in 2009) we will have some steps in the right direction on climate policy without the administration admitting that they have grasped the problem.”
The negative reaction
Critics tended to say the president did not go far enough, fast enough.
“When you have an addiction you don’t say ‘I’ll try to kick the habit in 10 or 20 years,’” the Sierra Club said in a statement.
Phil Clapp, the head of the National Environmental Trust, said Bush could have proposed “a grand bargain with Detroit: help with pensions and health care costs in exchange for an iron-clad commitment to increase fuel efficiency.”
“Instead,” Clapp said, the president “indulged in his habitual fantasy that he doesn't have to solve problems — technology will, some day.”
There was also criticism from free-market thinkers that usually support Bush.
“It’s odd that the president would to complain that America is ‘addicted to oil,’” Jerry Taylor, a fellow at the Cato Institute, said in a statement. “Another way of putting it is that American consumers are attracted to the lowest cost sources of energy to meet their energy needs. It’s a bit distressing to call that sensible inclination an ‘addiction.’”
Taylor also argued against helping the auto industry and subsidies for coal, wind, solar, nuclear and ethanol. “If those technologies have economic merit, no subsidy is necessary,” he said.
The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy had a different take.
“The president's call for reduced oil dependence and new energy technologies is laudable, but to be credible, the administration must reverse its record of cutting overall funding for energy efficiency and other clean energy technologies,” ACEEE Executive Director Steven Nadel said in a statement. “Next week's budget must show major increases in total funding for clean energy, not just more of the program reshufflings we've seen for the last five years.”