In one of his columns last week, Tom Friedman (Times Select required) relayed a conversation with Democratic strategist James Carville about energy. Both men see a tremendous opportunity for the Democrats—or really for either party—in the public’s concern about energy security. However, it’s worth recalling that the current administration brought in more energy expertise than almost any previous one, but could not hit a home run with it. That illustrates the complexity and the scale of the challenge involved. If energy security is going to work as a campaign issue, candidates must clearly differentiate what they’re going to do from what’s been tried unsuccessfully in the past.
For starters, they can’t just replay the tired old slogans about “energy independence.” Americans have been hearing this since the 1970s, while the goal recedes farther from the realm of possibility every day. In 1975 we imported 36 % of our oil and 16 % of our total energy needs. In other words, we were 84% self-sufficient in energy, though you’d never have guessed that from the level of panic the oil shocks caused. By 2005, however, those imports had expanded to encompass 60 % of oil and 30 % of total energy. In other words, today we are 1/6th less energy independent than when the phrase was first coined, in spite of numerous government and private initiatives to close the gap.
The political opportunity may be great, but it’s going to require some icon-breaking for both sides, if we want real progress, rather than well-intended but impractical remedies. I plan to suggest some concrete examples during the next couple of weeks, but topping the list is the need to mesh our energy and environmental priorities in a way that treats all primary energy sources—i.e. those that create net new BTUs, rather than changing them from one from to another—equally, and differentiates between them based on their total environmental impact, with greenhouse gas emissions as first priority. That means coming up with a systematic way to evaluate the life-cycle environmental consequences of a wide range of energy sources, including ethanol and other biofuels, clean coal, nuclear, oil sands, offshore drilling, photovoltaics and wind power, and then prioritizing our efforts.
Embarking on such a path will step on some toes, particularly if it turns out that more conventional approaches such as offshore drilling—at least for natural gas—can deliver meaningful increments of energy security at a smaller environmental price than such high-tech methods as coal liquefaction and oil sands recovery, or faster than some of our renewable energy alternatives.
Being pragmatic about energy security also means recognizing the tremendous inertia involved in moderating our demand without destroying the economic activity that’s linked to it. In transportation, that inertia results less from the reluctance of the auto industry to produce more efficient cars than from the size of our existing vehicle fleet, and our propensity to drive it farther every year. Any policies for near-term demand impact will have to be driven by behavior first, investment second, and this will probably require higher fuel taxes.
Solutions such as these are bound to become intensely political, because of the interests they challenge. They also require having the guts to risk offending either party’s base, but doing so in a way that will still allow the creation of a post-election, bi-partisan consensus on energy that has been absent at the national level for some time. So while there’s certainly an opportunity for a candidate or party to use energy security to distinguish itself from its opponent, this won't necessarily be any easier than tackling Social Security reform or Iraq.