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As a Political Issue, Energy Lacks Power

September 07, 2004|Paul Roberts

Is it just me, or are the presidential candidates going out of their way not to talk about oil? Given the high price of crude, given the growing vulnerability of the global oil system, and given that many voters believe that Iraq is at least a little bit about oil, you'd expect to see energy policy at the center of the campaign. Yet aside from a few early jabs, there's been no substantive debate about our obsolete energy system, skyrocketing consumption or total uncertainty as to where we're going to get all the oil we will need 10 years from now.

Lefties and conspiracy cranks blame this silence on Big Oil and Coal, whose influence, we're told, is so pervasive that no politician dares even mention the E-word. Although there's some truth in that notion, the main reason is far less complex -- and more discouraging: Voters simply don't care.

For starters, energy crises simply aren't as painful as they used to be. We're not only wealthier than we were during the 1973-to-1974 oil embargo but, as a society, more energy efficient. That means energy's hit on our wallets is smaller. For every dollar of disposable income, Americans spend less than 2.5 cents on gasoline -- too little, apparently, to make us change our energy habits. Despite record gas prices in 2004, consumption was up 1% over 2003. Sales of gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks grew by 8.3%.

But there's more at play here than pocketbook economics. Even with falling relative costs, most Americans know that our oil-dominated energy system isn't running smoothly. We know that oil and other fossil fuels harm the environment. We know we're importing more oil every year and thus relying more on a global system that, as Iraq demonstrates daily, is wide open to political strife. Above all, we know our energy habits aren't exactly prudent. How many of us were truly shocked by reports that our cars are less fuel-efficient each year, or that, since 1980, the number of miles we drive has more than doubled, even as population grew just 17%?

The trouble is, awareness isn't the same as action. Even if we know our energy system is in trouble, we're largely unwilling to change our ways, mainly because we believe that "smart" energy policy means giving up our lifestyle.

When politicians correctly declare that America needs a new energy policy, we picture ourselves driving tiny cars; riding crowded, smelly buses and, generally, living not like Americans but Europeans, or worse. And that's a prospect that doesn't play well in Peoria.

The Bush administration figured this out early. When he unveiled his boss' new national energy policy in 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney openly ridiculed "conservation" while extolling plans to boost oil production and thus sustain the American "way of life." And although President Bush did eventually promise fuel cells and a hydrogen economy, that was mainly to distract us from the far more practical step of raising efficiency in existing cars.

By contrast, Sen. John F. Kerry was a bit slower on the uptake. This spring, Kerry tried to nail Bush for his oil industry ties. But White House strategists shrewdly countered by harping on Kerry's support for a gas tax increase 10 years ago. Voters, it turns out, are far more scared of a higher gasoline tax than of political cronyism.

Put another way, energy policy rarely wins you votes, but it surely can lose them for you -- a lesson even Kerry seems to have finally grasped. After proposing in June an intriguing new program to boost efficiency -- with heavy incentives for consumers who buy fuel-efficient cars and funding to help Detroit build smarter vehicles -- Kerry has been fairly quiet on the issue of energy, and it's hard to seen him reviving it before November.

Indeed, despite the fact that our energy system is just as obsolete, just as prone to collapse and just as in need of upgrading as it was before the campaign, chances are that energy will soon disappear entirely as a political issue.

It may reemerge, but not until some new disruption sends prices into the stratosphere, threatens the economy and gets the voters sufficiently riled. Then, politicians might be willing to talk about energy. Unless, of course, it happens in an election year.

*

Paul Roberts is the author of "The End of Oil" (Houghton Mifflin, 2004).

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