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Energy Independence and Hybrid Cars: the Missing Issue of 2006

Earlier I pointed out the relative failure, until this week anyhow, to emphasize the economy as an issue in the Congressional elections. America's hope to assimilate the already resident immigrants, to find jobs for well-educated and the poorly-educated youth alike and to protect American interests in the world all benefit from the kind of expansion we have enjoyed the past three years. Imagine what a mess we would be in without it. (Thank you, George W. Bush, thank you tax cuts of 2003.)

Understandably, the media would rather talk about Iraq and scandals. The economic boom doesn't fit the current pessimistic news theme.

But at least there have been extensive efforts by the White House to talk about the issue. The same cannot be said about energy independence--an issue that somehow has been swallowed up whole. For three decades--since the OPEC oil crisis of the 70s--American leaders have talked about the need to rely more on ourselves for energy production and less, particularly, on oil imported from the Middle East. In the 70s governments at all levels were motivated to find ways to conserve on energy and political candidates vied to propose new programs and ideas. Some were daft and counterproductive (price controls and rationing, for example) and others worked (for instance, insulation for old as well as new houses).

Meanwhile, the environmental movement backed measures such as catalytic converters to improve air quality that, ultimately, gained bi-partisan support. Young people today probably don't remember Los Angeles when it was sunk in perpetual smog or when tree planting (to eat CO2) was not a particularly popular cause.

But here we are at the end of the 2006 election cycle and there has been a relative dearth of interesting, let alone passionate, debate on energy alternatives, conservation and new energy sources and energy independence. James R. Schlesinger, Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Energy (from 1977-79) even warned people recently not to expect energy independence as a possibility anytime soon, citing "less dependence" as a more reasonable goal.

Al Gorians are making rather wild assertions about global warming--both as to the extent of it and the extent of human responsibility for it--but this deeply ideological debate seems to excite people without leading to much resolution. Have you noticed that the global warming fight is all about analysis and not about serious proposals for action?

Now that Campaign 2006 is all over but the shouting--and the day-after-the-election lawsuits, no doubt--maybe the country can put the politics of energy aside for a while and look at the policy issues of energy.

Is it not possible for liberals and conservatives to come together on programs that liberate us from Middle Eastern coercion, offer consumers and businesses abundant energy supply, promote conservation and clean air, and lower costs? It is not unrealistic to do so.

Discovery Institute is working hard on several elements of energy development and conservation. Personally, I would like to see how close the U.S. really can come to energy independence, after all. Maybe the U.S. alone cannot become energy independent, but there is reason to think that North America (the U.S., Canada and Mexico) could do so.

Think of all the innovative people working of aspects of biofuel, oil shale in Alberta and oil tar sands exploration and extraction in Colorado and Utah. Then there is off shore oil. The new Jack Field wells in the Gulf of Mexico that were announced in early September could almost double proven U.S. oil proven reserves. That promising development should have received far more notice than it did.

Things are looking up in Mexico, where the bureaucratic hand of the government slowed exploration and production for decades, but where new finds have been announced by the Fox government and the new conservative P.A.N. government of Felipe Calderon has shown indications of wanting to use oil to stimulate stronger economic growth. (Is not a more prosperous Mexico capable of employing its own people plainly in our interest, too?)

Notice that I have not even mentioned Alaska and ANWR. The Democrats have succeeded in stymieing ANWR development, but there are still offshore possibilities that might encounter less opposition.

Meanwhile, we must review the fascinating parade of alternative energy sources and the growing discussion of nuclear power, the latter abandoned as a polite subject for twenty or more years.

Our secondary, but important, aim in the whole energy development field should be to share the technologies we develop in the U.S. with developing countries such as China and India that otherwise are on course in the next half dozen years to require more energy and cause more pollution than we realistically can offset by our own efforts. If we can help them to conserve, too, we can spare all of us the problems that otherwise bode likely to destabilize the peace of the world.

Since this is a blog and not a position paper, I just want to note one particular idea that we think can make a huge difference to all the good purposes mentioned above, especially conservation: plug in hybrid cars. We are mystified that this did not become a big issue in the election campaign. Here we have Detroit laying off people, Al Gore selling the concept of a climate Apocalypse to Tony Blair, the Iranians threatening to overturn the world's oil market in case we try to stop their nuclear weapons program, Hugo Chavez becoming the South American Castro on the earning of oil profits and American commuters watching the price of gas this past spring and summer careen to new heights, only to drop lately and temporarily, and the nation experiencing record high trade deficits because we are now importing over 60 percent of our oil.

Despite all that, hardly anyone noticed when N.Y. Gov. Pataki announced plans to convert 600 cars in the New York State car fleet to plug in hybrids as an example of what may lie ahead. Nor was there any fanfare in mid-October, when President Bush said, "We envision a day in which light and powerful batteries become available in the world marketplace so that you can drive the first 40 miles on electricity, on batteries. In other words, it will be a technology that will meet consumer demand and at the same time meet a national need, which is less consumption of gasoline. These are called plug-in hybrids."

Plug in hybrids use non-peak grid electricity--as easy to access as an electric cord in your garage--to recharge batteries that increase gas mileage several fold. Soon, indeed, it will be possible to use plug in hybrids that don't require standard gasoline at all. Costs are coming down fast, and reliability is going up.

What is needed right now is some leadership in Washington to push hard. It hasn't happened yet, but the President at least is alert to the issue. Now let's see if he and the new Congress will move the idea ahead. We assert that it should be a high national priority to come up with new oil and other energy sources, including renewable energies. But right now we can make a huge difference in a short period--in even one year or so--by lowering gasoline consumption through plug-in hybrid technology.

If we also share that technology with the developing world, it is hard to think of another way that would contribute more to their prosperity and to the health of the environment we ultimately all experience together.

You can email brucechapman@discovery.org

1 Comment

In passing, FYI, I'm inclined to take the Wikileaks apparent revelations about Saudi Arabia having 40% less oil than has been suggested seriously as I've been hearing rumours on this subject for years. I find the idea entirely credible.

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