Stalled out: Thirty years later, we still have no federal energy policy

Anyone watching Congress attempt to deal with the nation’s mounting energy problems can come to only one conclusion: We have no federal energy policy in the United States. Instead, as we have seen all too often in recent years, a panicked Congress reacts to an issue that has been allowed to reach crisis stage and comes up with a handful of politically motivated measures that offer little or no hope for either a short or long-term solution to the problems. For citizens caught in the economic vise of skyrocketing energy prices, relief is nowhere in sight.

Those with a few years under their belts will recall the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. In retaliation for U.S. support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) decided to radically cut oil exports to the U.S. The effect was instant and devastating.

Across the nation citizens suddenly found themselves at stations that were totally out of gas, sitting in long lines waiting to buy however much the station would sell them at prices that had escalated almost beyond belief. The clarion call of the politicians in D.C. became, almost overnight, “energy independence.” If that seems like an echo today, it should come as no surprise. Likewise, it should also come as no surprise that we aren’t one step closer to energy independence now than we were 35 years ago.

To his credit—and the dismay of the traveling public—President Richard Nixon instituted a 55 mile per hour national speed limit that, although hugely unpopular, was responsible for an instantaneous reduction in fuel consumption. We sure weren’t going to become energy independent because of it, but it definitely accomplished the goal of reducing demand and hence, weakening the effect of the oil embargo.

One month after the oil embargo, Congress passed and Nixon signed into law the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Act that literally cleared the way for the quick construction of a massive pipeline across primarily federal lands. The measure moved quickly so the nation could tap into and consume the billions of barrels of oil that had been discovered in Prudhoe Bay in 1968.

As we know now, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, engineering marvel that it was, never did get us closer to energy independence. Instead, in response to the oil glut of the ’80s, Congress went so far as to repeal its ban on exporting Alaskan oil and, up until 2000, Korea, Japan and China all bought North Slope oil.

The same oil glut quickly erased the collective memories of Congress and energy independence was all but forgotten. Automotive companies moved away from smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles, to the highly profitable, lumbering behemoths that swill down so much imported oil we are once again in an energy crisis of our own making. Consumption, not conservation, became the norm as mileage fell and oil imports continued to grow. Politicians ignored the warnings of “peak oil,” where the production of oil would reach its peak and then decline in the face of increasing demand. Instead, they were happy to sweep in millions in oil and automotive campaign contributions from industries experiencing enormous profits, kow-towing to their wishes while once again leaving the American public critically vulnerable to the so-called free market forces.

Suddenly, in part because of the regional tensions created by the war in Iraq and the Bush-Cheney saber-rattling toward Iran, the oil market went nuts. The price leapfrogged higher and higher every day—not by dollars, but by tens of dollars. And every day, worldwide demand for oil continued to grow, creating a rich market for speculators while American citizens emptied their wallets at the pumps.

Once again the call of energy independence is on the lips of politicians across the nation. Here at home, Gov. Brian Schweitzer has continued to push his ill-fated coal-to-liquids schemes while his comrades in Congress scramble for a quick fix to a long-term problem. Once again, we are being told our only hope is to drill and mine our way out of this. And once again, that is exactly the wrong message.

Just this week, the Senate unveiled what is being called a “New Era” energy proposal that includes more off-shore drilling. The Arctic Wildlife Refuge is in the crosshairs again and nuclear energy—and the federal subsidies that have always supported it—is back on the front burner. It’s no surprise that the good old coal industry looks to be the primary recipient of government grants and loans as the pursuit of mythical “clean coal” continues to suck down millions in taxpayer dollars without reducing energy costs by a dime.

At the presidential level, Barack Obama and John McCain are facing off daily on energy issues. McCain’s answer is that we need it all—more nukes, more coal, more drilling, more mining. Obama, meanwhile, finds himself trapped, knowing full well the economic pressures that are crushing the populace and the economy, but unable to fend off the growing calls for more off-shore drilling to which he is now acceding as part of a “comprehensive energy plan.”

Last week, just to make sure the industrial powers remain firmly in control and continue to rake in record profits, Senate Republicans, joined by some Democrats, refused to extend the renewable energy tax credits that have spurred development of the booming wind, solar and alternative energy sectors, saying they will only do so as part of an expanded domestic drilling package.

The American energy carousel continues to go round and round, covering the same ground it did 30 years ago with the same old tune of energy independence.  We can hang on for the ride, maybe, but there’s no brass ring—or federal energy policy—in sight.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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