The weight of much hope and expectation rests on the narrow shoulders of Barack Obama, the first-term Democratic senator from Illinois.
His eventual presidential run is seen as inevitable (some pundits even hype a 2008 bid). He's a phenomenon, and everyone wants to see him up close. That's fundraising manna for the Democrats: He was in Seattle this month to stump on behalf of Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, who faces tough opposition this November.
Recently Obama has moved to the forefront on energy independence. He devoted speeches to it last September and last month, and has accused the oil industry of colluding against biofuels. He's proposed "Health Care for Hybrids" legislation that would offer American automakers funding to help cover their health-care costs in exchange for investments in fuel-efficiency. With Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar (R), he's cosponsored the "Fuel Security and Consumer Choice Act," which would mandate that all vehicles sold in the U.S. be able to run on an ethanol blend as well as gasoline within 10 years, and the "American Fuels Act."
In the service of curbing consumption of oil (foreign and otherwise), the latter bill would provide a raft of incentives and subsidies for ethanol. Illinois obviously stands to benefit from an ethanol-fueled battle against oil -- indeed, many environmentalists are openly suspicious of the recent embrace by farm-state legislators of energy independence. With the smell of pork in the air, greens worry that rather than a balanced package of energy initiatives (efficiency incentives, grid improvements, carbon taxes, etc.), America will simply be saddled with yet another massive, entrenched, politically connected, heavily subsidized industry.
But when I sat across from Obama in a Seattle cafe booth, I sensed no duplicity. His much-storied charisma makes such judgments difficult, of course, but he seemed to have a grasp of the energy situation far broader than bringing home the pork to his constituents. He acknowledged the limitations of his proposals but was unapologetically pragmatic about strategy. He's playing the long game.
Grist: Have you gotten much reaction to your speech to the National Governors Association or the American Fuels bill you just introduced with Dick Lugar?
Obama: We've received much better response than for most of the legislation we introduce. I think it underscores how passionately people feel about the energy issue, and how it draws together different coalitions. You've got environmentalists, who are concerned about climate change; you've got people concerned about the economy and the disruptions that oil shocks can bring; and you've got national-security folks. There aren't too many issues where James Woolsey and Ralph Nader are on the same page, right? And this is one of them. So we've gotten good response, and I'm excited about moving forward.
Grist: Do you think your prescriptions are up to the magnitude of our oil addiction?
Obama: They don't go as far as we're going to need to go. But I think they move us in the right direction and start bringing the coalitions together to take a series of steps.
I support significant increases in CAFE standards. But we've brought that to the floor again and again and again, and we can't get it passed in its current iteration. I was one of the cosponsors of the amendment to the energy bill last year -- we just couldn't get enough votes. Including, unfortunately, two of our Democratic senators from Michigan, because they're concerned about the auto industry. No matter how much you want to talk about the big picture, people still think very locally.
I think cellulosic ethanol is probably our best short-term solution. The amount of energy required to produce cellulosic ethanol is a significant improvement over corn-based ethanol. The technology exists. We don't have to change distribution systems; essentially it pumps just like gasoline. It only costs $100 to retrofit any vehicle out there. And if Brazil can do it in the span of three or four years, while cutting their transportation-gasoline use essentially in half, there's no reason we can't do it.
So I guess my answer would be: This is an important series of first steps that moves us in the right direction. It is not sufficient to create a sustainable, long-term energy strategy, but it'll be a component of it.
Grist: Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope and Cato Institute libertarian Jerry Taylor agree on a solution to our energy woes: wipe out all energy subsidies, period. Coal, oil, nuclear, ethanol, solar, wind: level the playing field and let the best solution win. Your energy plan contains several tax breaks and subsidies for ethanol. Do you think the government should be picking winners?
Obama: Historically, we've subsidized the oil and gas industry significantly. We've certainly subsidized the nuclear energy industry.
I would be willing to consider a pure free market. But the problem -- though I haven't read the study the Sierra Club and Cato people put together -- is that when it comes to oil, at least, oil producers are in a position to lower and raise prices pretty drastically in response to competition. Take solar power, or wind, or cellulosic ethanol -- all those energy sources, if oil stays at $60 or $55 a barrel, are competitive. If they really start to threaten oil, Saudi Arabia could easily flood the market sufficient to drop oil down to $25 or $30 per barrel. So it's not a perfect market.
It does make sense to ensure that if we're going to pick winners and losers, or at least be in the game, let's make sure to focus on those that have the most promise for the future.
Grist: I think it would be unfair of me -- possibly even rude -- not to offer you at least the opportunity to announce your surprise 2008 presidential run in the pages of Grist.
Obama: Well, certainly if I were ready to make that move, Grist would be one of the first outlets we would contact.
Grist: John Edwards announced on The Daily Show. You could trump him.
Obama: And look how it worked out for him.