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U.S. politics: Is the fix in?

Concern over being held hostage to foreign energy markets drives what President Bush calls his campaign for “energy independence.” But the lust for oil, critics say, shows a lack of foresight.
High-tension power lines and wind turbines compete for attention at the San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs, Calif.
High-tension power lines and wind turbines compete for attention at the San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs, Calif.
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“Today, we import a million barrels from Saddam Hussein,” George W. Bush said. “I would rather that a million come from our own hemisphere, our own country, as opposed to Saddam Hussein.”

That statement did not come in any context of a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq. Nor did it come in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

George W. Bush, a former director of Harken Energy Corp., said that more than two years ago, in a presidential debate with Al Gore, when he was governor of oil-rich Texas.

It was more than a year and a half ago that the energy task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney, former chief executive of Halliburton Energy Services, warned: “On our present course, America 20 years from now will import nearly two of every three barrels of oil — a condition of increased dependency on foreign powers that do not always have America’s interests at heart.”

Concern over being held hostage to foreign energy markets drives what Bush calls his campaign for “energy independence.” As laid out by his energy task force, the way to win that campaign is to accelerate discovery and development of new domestic sources of crude oil and natural gas.

Cheney’s panel recommended Cabinet-level support for programs “to promote enhanced oil and gas recovery from existing wells” and “to improve oil and gas exploration technology.” It also called for an economic impact review of “impediments to federal oil and gas exploration and development.”

And it recommended opening protected offshore regions and part of the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to exploratory drilling.

Fossil fetish?
These measures would certainly ratchet up domestic oil production — even the task force’s critics concede that. But it also misses the point, they say.

The United States wouldn’t be so thirsty for domestic oil, advocates of renewable and alternative energy sources contend, if it weren’t so dependent on oil in the first place.

“We can talk very simply in terms of ‘Gosh, you know, our supplies may one day be threatened; therefore, we should just drill more,’” said Michael Marvin, president of the Business Council on Sustainable Energy, a coalition of renewable energy companies and trade associations. “Well, that’s one of the options, and the other option is we could use less, and another is we could use something else.”

Said Randy Udall, director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, which pushes energy efficiency and renewable resources: “I saw a wonderful bumper sticker at a drilling rig a couple of months ago. It said, ‘Earth first — we’ll drill the other planets later.’ And that in my mind really symbolizes the bankruptcy of U.S. energy policy.”

Had the United States committed itself years ago to make national priorities of conservation and alternative technologies — such as fuel cells, wind, hydropower, solar and biomass technologies — it could be well on the way to weaning itself from crude oil, regardless of its source, Udall and other energy experts contend.

Markets and money
Why that hasn’t happened isn’t a simple oil-vs.-green equation. BP Amoco, formerly British Petroleum, is the world’s biggest investor in solar power research and development, for example. And oil companies are investing heavily in development of fuel cell technology.

“People say: ‘Well, God, [fuel cells] have the potential to double fuel mileage. Why would we want to do that?’” said Genevieve Murphy, senior manager of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s leading trade group. “Well, we want to be around providing the fuel of today as well as the fuel of tomorrow.”

But skeptics see ulterior motives in such investments — oil and gas companies put on a green-friendly face while avoiding scrutiny of what they get in return.

Critics note, for example, that the primary source of hydrogen for the current generation of fuel cells is good, old-fashioned gasoline.

And while the API, for the first time, supported mandates in this year’s Senate energy bill on the use of ethanol, opponents pointed out that the bill would eliminate not only specific targets — making compliance difficult to monitor — but also regional requirements on the use of fuel oxygenates, which give the industry a pounding headache.

‘More complicated than that'
The industry, meanwhile, argues that the technologies to replace fossil fuels aren’t ready for prime time. The U.S. economy runs on oil, and it does so because it is cheap and convenient — “it isn’t any more complicated than that,” an industry official said.

Moreover, the technologies aren’t as versatile as petroleum — they’re not what the industry calls “fungible,” meaning they can’t be used for a wide spectrum of applications. Wind power and hydropower are potentially cheap and plentiful, but they can’t do much more than generate electricity. They can heat a home but they can’t efficiently fuel a car, at least not yet. Oil products can easily do both.

But, alternative energy advocates say, the game is rigged. They complain that those shortcomings could be surmounted with adequate federal support, and they accuse the government of talking a good game but failing to deliver.

“There are technologies that exist now [that] could replace looming shortfalls in fossil resources,” said George Sterzinger, executive director of the Renewable Energy Policy Project. “R&D has paid off ... but policies don’t move in that direction.”

Green energy advocates point with particular asperity at the 170-page policy blueprint released last year to great fanfare by Cheney’s energy task force, which praised alternative technologies but came down heavily on the side of oil and gas.

The document made few specific recommendations on alternative and renewable fuels. And what few it did make were all but ignored in the White House’s budget request for 2002. (The outlook for 2003 is impossible to gauge, because the House and the Senate are considering dramatically different energy bills.)

For example, the task force called for an unspecified increase in “funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development programs that are performance-based and cost-shared.” But the White House ended up cutting its actual requested funding for such programs by half from 2001. And even that figure is misleading, since it includes some “clean-fuel” technologies based on petroleum products that the government classifies as alternatives to oil and gas.

Money where his mouth is
In terms of real government dollars spent, the differences are even starker. Since Bush took office, his administration has directed a total of $6 billion in subsidies toward conservation, fuel efficiency and renewable resources, less than a quarter of the $27 billion it has spent on fossil fuels, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

But even with increased exploration, the real concern is that America still falls short of its basic energy needs. Cheney’s task force concluded that “over the next 20 years, U.S. oil consumption will increase by 33 percent. ... If America’s energy production grows at the same rate as it did in the 1990s we will face an ever-increasing gap.”

Because “we produce 39 percent less oil today than we did in 1970,” it said, the United States is certain to become “ever more reliant on foreign suppliers.”

The belief in some circles is that the heavy reliance on foreign oil, including Iraqi crude, is factored into the White House plans to take on Saddam. Whether that is true or not, it points up the need for the United States to find another way to do business, advocates said.

“If you think of U.S. oil production as a six-pack ... of petroleum, four of the cans are empty. We’re kind of a black hole for energy,” said Udall of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency.

“The U.S. energy challenges are much more grave than the president, the Senate or the House has recognized, than anybody has ever articulated to the American people.”