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An Energy Plan for You!

by James C. Williams on Mar 28, 2001

James C. Williams

Watch out for George W. and his gas and oil pals. They’ve got an energy plan for us! White House chief economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey put it straightforwardly and single-mindedly: “We need more refineries, we need more power plants, we need more pipelines.” Environmentalism and renewable energy be damned, supply-side energy policy reigns and fossil fuel is still King.

Not since the 1950s, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Republican legislators took unbecomingly large financial contributions from the appreciative petroleum and natural gas industries, has the fossil fuel industry been this cozy with an administration. Then, political cartoonist Herblock skewered the government and the oil and gas interests for their cozy relationship with a depiction of a lobbyist in front of the White House with a barrelful of money, confronted by an elephant angrily shouting: “I’ve told you fifty times — not at the front door!”

Of course, it remains to be seen whether George W. will allow his administration to be completely captured by his fossil fuel buddies. Eisenhower, in fact, ended up vetoing the deregulation bill to save face. The natural gas industry had to wait until Ronald Reagan’s administration to get what it wanted. And even then it didn’t get it all. Although Reagan and his successor, George the Elder, adopted a market-oriented approach to energy, the environmental movement proved to be a formidable competitor for legislators’ attention into the early 1990s.

The 1970s energy crises — anyone over forty remembers the gas lines and swollen electric bills — helped solidify environmentalism in America. The movement brought us not only Earth Day but the National Environmental Protection Act, clean air legislation, restrictions on gas and oil drilling, and the development of alternative energy resources; it raised national consciousness about pipelines in Alaska, strip mining for coal, oil blowouts on the Pacific Coast and in the North Sea, and the Three Mile Island nuclear power disaster,

Fast forward thirty years and environmentalism seems like just another special interest in a crowd of voices raised on behalf of medical reform, gun control, abortion rights and other issues. Although the Clinton White House initially stood with environmental interests against oil and for renewable resources, starting in 1995 the Republican Congress undermined whatever energy policy existed. It even tried to abolish the Department of Energy!

Now, with George W. in the White House, the old Reagan “sagebrush rebellion” against environmentalists seems finally to be winning. Gas and oil prospectors may soon be drilling wells in national wilderness preserves, and nobody in the Bush administration wants to give California, home to the environmental movement, a break.

It’s payback time. Does it matter that Californians use less electricity per capita than residents of any other state? Does it matter that energy businesses produce more electricity from solar, wind, geothermal and biomass technology in California than anywhere else in the nation? Apparently not, for as amazing as it may seem, the White House actually is holding up California as a warning for the rest of the nation. George W. and his gas and oil pals already seem to have persuaded the news media that supply is the problem. We don’t have enough energy, so prices must go up until we remove environmental and other bureaucratic obstacles that keep America’s entrepreneurs from finding and delivering all the gas and oil we’ll ever need.

No campaign to encourage development of renewable energy resources, no push for permanent conservation policies, no consideration for realistic price caps for electric power generators, no apparent concern for the devastating impact of high energy costs to economically vulnerable citizens. Never mind that we have as much energy as we had last year, that even with population growth demand actually has leveled off — and that the immediate crisis is largely a manufactured one designed to maximize profits for new power generators. We Americans seem to prefer simple answers.

Jimmy Carter was probably the only president to understand that supply was only one side of the energy coin. Demand was the other side. In 1979, when he tried to convince Americans to conserve electricity, heating fuels and gasoline, and to turn toward renewable energy, his opponents ridiculed him. Freezing in the dark was not what they wanted to hear about. Unfortunately, today Americans have never been further from an honest-to-goodness, serious and realistic energy policy. What the last decades of weak-kneed attention to energy issues reveal is that we must move beyond simple answers, or we may indeed be freezing in the dark.

James C. Williams, who teaches history at De Anza College in Silicon Valley, is the author of "Energy and the Making of Modern California" (1997) and a writer for the History News Service.