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Empty Rhetoric on Energy

August 25, 2004

As the price of a barrel of oil flirts with the $50 mark, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are promising to make the United States energy-independent. If that sounds familiar, it's because we've heard the same thing from presidents and presidential candidates since Richard Nixon in 1973 vowed to accomplish that goal by 1980. Next year marks the 25th anniversary of his Project Independence's failure. Come 2010, it will be the 25th anniversary of the failure to hit President Ford's revised target of 1985. And so on.

Promising to achieve energy independence, while failing to give many specifics on how to get there, allows candidates to mask the fact that they're avoiding serious debate on energy policy. Absent a miracle, the United States won't be capable of producing all its own energy anytime soon, no matter how many wild lands are damaged in trying.

Dependence on foreign oil has grown steadily since 1994, when the country became a net importer of petroleum. Natural gas imports, which tripled between 1986 and 2000, continue to grow as domestic demand surges. Overall, the demand for energy exceeds domestic production by about 25% -- a net difference that is expected to hit 36% by 2025.

The Bush White House continues to peddle a pork-filled energy bill that has twice failed in Congress. As reported in The Times today, the administration also seeks to fulfill energy industry desires for drilling across the American West (called by insiders "the OPEC states") with little or no regard for environmental damage.

Kerry's plan clearly is designed to win votes. Mining states would get more taxpayer dollars for research into cleaner-burning technologies, and farm states would benefit from a requirement that the U.S. produce 5 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2012. Kerry, in a clear bow to automobile-producing states, has abandoned his demand for tough fuel-economy standards.

Chasing energy independence makes for good sound bites, but weaning the nation from foreign energy supplies depends on real-world solutions -- including alternative and renewable fuels that will take time to develop. In the meantime, the country must renew conservation efforts, starting with tougher fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks -- which account for two-thirds of U.S. petroleum demand. Japanese carmakers have shown that there is a powerful U.S. demand for the gas-saving hybrid autos.

Conservation works. For proof, look to California's experience with electricity. The state's tough energy-efficiency standards for appliances and buildings, combined with high prices for electricity, have made California the most energy-efficient state. Consumption drives imports, and the quickest way to cut dependence is to curb the national energy appetite.

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