Big Oil Governs
Regardless of the Enron Scandal, George W. Bush plays Monopoly in Energy Policy
By Thomas Fischermann
[This article originally published in: DIE ZEIT, 16/2002 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.zeit.de/2002/16/Wirtschaft/print_200216_e-usa_energiepol.html.]
Bob Stempel finds it more difficult to save the environment since September 11. The former head of the auto-giant General Motors is today chairman of a small firm called Energy Conversion Devices (ECD) that develops fuel cells for environmentally-friendly cars of the future. For his presentations on the "hydrogen economy", Stempel in the past always carried around a sample of his work, a little disk the size of a CD full of hydrogen. "Since I was stopped several times by security forces at airports, I leave this at home", Stempel said.
However this doesn't really matter. The man no longer needs great persuasiveness. Firms like ECD are even regarded as the vanguard in the war against terrorism. Two-thirds of the world's oil reserves lie in the Middle East which makes the oil-thirsty superpower America vulnerable or open to attack. To loosen dependence on the politically unstable region, the US Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham at the Detroit auto show proclaimed his latest energy savings program, the Freedom Car - a vehicle driven by hydrogen and fuel cells that manages entirely without gasoline. Stempel helped develop this technology.
Two hooks or problems exist. Firstly, the Bush administration will obviously not exert any pressure on businesses to rapidly research and develop. The energy savings program lacks any binding timetable. Secondly, not even Bob Stempel believes that fuel cell vehicles will be driven in large numbers on the streets in the next ten years.
The Freedom Car will not improve anything in the next decade", complains Steven Nadel, director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Washington. In particular, the government has cancelled another program from the Clinton era called Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. This could have quickly made conventional gas cars more economical.
For American climate defenders, the experience with the Freedom Car is symbolic. The Bush administration in Sunday speeches professes energy savings and clean air but gives priority to the interests of big business when the battle begins. The influential environmental organization National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) already senses a "secret attack of the Bush administration" on American environmental laws.
Is this secret? US President George W. Bush actually makes no secret of his contempt for environmental protection. He countered the Kyoto protocol on atmospheric protection with his hardly helpful Global Climate Change Program. American greenhouse gas emissions may rise as in the past.
To give electricity-hungry Americans more electricity, the Bush administration declared early on that it will build at least 1300 and perhaps 1900 new power plans all over the country. With subsidies, the government promotes very filthy coal power plants, wants to revive nuclear energy on a large scale and is hysterically resolved despite security objections and terrorist danger to cram through a final disposal site for nuclear waste. Simultaneously the administration attempts to weaken the Clean Air Act obligating every reorganization or development of the older power plants to greater pollution control. At the end of February, the supervisory head of the environmental agency EPA, Eric Schaeffer, resigned under protest. "We fight here against a White House that seems resolved to weaken our rules", he lamented.
To top it all, Bush junior has rediscovered an old project of earlier republican presidents. He wants to drill for oil in a gigantic nature conservation area in Alaska although many geologists and even some oil industrialists are skeptical. They have doubt in the economic viability of the project and in the lucrativeness of oil revenues. The prominent democratic senators Joe Lieberman and John Kerry have already declared themselves defenders of Alaska's wilderness against its collapse.
The administration cannot actually be given a completely free hand in energy- and climate policy. Hearings on the new energy laws begin in the Senate this week. There the oppositional democrats have the majority, not George Bush's republicans. Therefore the energy economist Ashok Gupta of NRDC believes "that an agreement will hardly be reached this year." One reason is that all the representatives and a third of the senators are up for election in the fall and they know that the majority of Americans are against drilling in Alaska, against the air pollution by power plants and for climate protection.
Many things can happen without new laws. With shudders, environmentalists recall the memo that the freshly baked president sent to all office holders a few weeks after his assumption of power. Official regulations in favor of nature and the environment should be stopped and reexamined. Afterwards John Graham, the influential director in Bush's Office of Management and Budge, was the arch enemy of all environmentalists. The former co-worker of an industry-friendly think tank reprimands the authorities, works closely with economic lobbyists and draws up - for their purposes - a "hit list" of supposedly unnecessary eco-guidelines. In a word, Bush wheels and deals with industry against environmental care.
This suspicion of the eco-faction received fresh impetus when the Texan energy giant Enron declared bankruptcy at the turn of the year and the most intimate connections between the administration controlled by a series of former oil managers and several Texan oil firms were revealed. The president and his minister Enron head Ken Lay repeatedly yielded to industry in reformulating energy policy. The connections between the government and the auto-lobby are similarly close.
Scandals surface back and forth. Bush has not changed his energy policy. For years, environmentalists have emphasized that the US economy would only consume a fraction of its coal, oil and electricity if it managed them as economically as other industrial nations. Americans have long shown that they can deal more intelligently with energy when the will exists. Spectacular savings successes were achieved like a flash after the 1979 oil shock and after the blackouts in California. According to estimates of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the American gross domestic product rose around 16 percent from 1979 to 1985 while oil consumption fell 15 percent.
The possibilities for energy savings are hardly exhausted. In the international comparison, US power plants operate with dreadful inefficiencies. American washing machines are very inefficient. Unimaginative city planning provides for long routes that can only be covered with the car. Changing this is politically difficult. For example, higher taxes on energy are regarded as unpopular and not simply enforceable...
Thus advocates of climate protection like the Union of Concerned Scientists fight a battle that sometimes seems hopeless. As of late they have been grappling with the terrorism danger. The UCS skillfully uses the motto "security measure" in their most recent appeal to save energy. "In the year 2021 we could save almost 2 million barrels a day, three times as much as we imported from Iraq last year."