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Oil and Us

Energy efficiency, conservation strengthen national security

January 11, 2002 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  With so many Americans dead on their own soil, the terrorist attack in effect opened a new chapter in a decades old skirmish about the real meaning of national security and the consequences of a way of life based on the profligate use of oil and other natural resources.
Even now, with Osama bin Laden on the run, with victory in Afghanistan in reach, and with Ground Zero in New York quickly being cleared of smoldering debris, it’s still immediately clear that President Bush was right. The September 11 attacks were a direct strike at what he called "the American way of life."

Mr. Bush’s assessment, meant to stir public passion and lay the political foundation for a sustained military campaign to eradicate global terrorism, has also had another effect. Spurred by the President’s regular reference, the American way of life is suddenly the focus of new public scrutiny and a substantive national discussion about who we are and how we live.

With so many Americans dead on their own soil, the terrorist attack in effect opened a new chapter in a decades old skirmish about the real meaning of national security and the consequences of a way of life based on the profligate use of oil and other natural resources.

The debate, which is steadily growing in intensity, could dramatically reshape the American economy and politics, perhaps as soon as the 2002 mid-term election. Moreover, say theorists on all sides of the dispute, never before has the environmental community had the opportunity to play such an influential in role in deciding the outcome. The reason: To the extent the horrendous attacks were prompted by America’s oil dependency and its unwelcome presence in the Middle East and other far corners of the world, the environmentalists’ vision of a more energy-efficient, less resource-dependent way of life is the most cogent long-term response yet put forward about how to truly strengthen national security.

"As Americans we must now join together in shaping a strong response to terrorism," said John Adams, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a letter to his organization’s 600,000 members. "For NRDC that means advocating policies that will immediately begin reducing our nation’s dependence on oil, whether imported or domestic. America’s unchecked consumption of oil has become a national Achilles heel."

Environmentalists, of course, have long studied the American way of life and warned about the long-term consequences to the planet and our nation’s security from pollution, global warming, holes in the ozone, species extinction, and so on. The September 11 attacks, though, added an unpredicted and visceral immediacy to the argument. The terrorist attacks, say conservative and progressive leaders, convey to the public a more graphic sense of urgency for environmental progress that the more amorphous long-term global environmental threats lacked.

In interviews, environmental leaders said the opportunity to incorporate a green vision in national policy has not been more apparent since the great decade-long period of national environmental policy making from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. Even before September 11, they noted, an important shift had already occurred in American priorities. Public opinion polls and 2000 election results indicated that many more Americans valued environmental safeguards, public health protections, and good government reforms designed to achieve both.

Elections at the local and state levels indicated a much greater willingness to install leaders who stressed environmental goals. In Michigan, for instance, voters in 13 counties and townships tossed out their growth-at-any-cost boards and commissions in November 2000 and elected new leaders who called for protecting water quality, curbing urban sprawl, and enforcing environmental laws.

Both conservatives and environmentalists also noted that the President’s low polling numbers prior to September 11 were due in large measure to to Mr. Bush’s disregard for environmental safeguards and were a response to the administration’s campaign earlier this year to weaken standards for arsenic in drinking water, undo Clinton-era protections for 60 million acres of wilderness, and abandon international treaty negotiations to curb global warming.

The polls, which also showed the public’s declining esteem for the right wing leadership in Congress, indicated that voters viewed the conservative message of lower taxes, less government, and opposition to abortion and gun control as out of touch. In a world where the American economy was shrinking, and concern about health care, education, traffic congestion, and environmental degradation were rising, the public understood that the solution was not more tax breaks for the rich, deregulation, subsidies for big industry, and neglect. The new priorities required a community response overseen by an engaged national government.

The September 11 attacks, say strategists, have more sharply defined the clash in values between progressives and the right. For the moment, in no arena are the choices more starkly apparent, or the chance for a progressive victory more readily attainable, than in the debate over energy.

In August, the U.S. House passed a supply side energy bill that would immediately open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to new exploration and also contained $27 billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies to oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear producers. The House bill, which called for up to 1,900 new electric power plants, contained just $6 billion to reduce demand and to support development of alternatives to fossil fuels. Until September 11, the House bill had almost no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it was seen as an antique response to 21st century conditions and a sop to the oil and utility interests that influence the White House.

But after September 11, Democratic support for a more sensible energy strategy was weakened by the concern several members had about being tarred by the right as unpatriotic. Republican leaders and the president, arguing that opening the Arctic refuge was a national security concern, have sought to capitalize on this fear and simultaneously avoid a public debate by trying unsuccessfully to attach the House bill as a rider to new security and tax legislation.

Democratic resolve, though, has stiffened. Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic majority leader, blocked a vote on the energy bill until it can be fully discussed. And Senator John Kerry, a Democrat of Massachusetts, vowed to lead a filibuster if the House energy bill somehow makes it to the floor of the Senate. 

In a speech in early November to the League of Conservation voters in New York, Mr. Kerry called the House energy bill "a charade." He added: "We’re remembering the acts of those average, everyday Americans who went in that building and ran up some 40 flights with hoses over their backs to rescue people, and police officers who went in to maintain order in our country. There is somehow something grotesquely inappropriate in $20-plus billion in subsidies to oil and gas that are giveaways."

Meanwhile the environmental community is making the case to its membership, the media, and on the Web that energy interests are trying to loot the treasury and that an entirely new kind of energy strategy is warranted. Gregory Wetstone, the program director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said his group alone has generated 510,000 email and fax messages to Congress in support of a more economically efficient, environmentally sensitive, and secure energy plan.

He and other environmental leaders believe the progressive view will prevail, a point that some conservative analysts do not dispute. "The ability of the environmental community to regroup after September 11, and regain momentum around the debate over energy in particular, shows confidence and sophistication in reaching a national audience," said Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an influential Washington-based libertarian research and policy organization. "It shows a skill level that is admirable."

There is good reason to anticipate an environmental victory. Here’s why: The U.S. uses 19.45 million barrels of oil a day, according to the Department of Energy, or more than a quarter of global production. More than 60 percent of the nation’s oil supply is imported and one quarter of U.S. oil imports come from the Middle East.

Conservative leaders in Congress and their allies in the energy industry argue that the means to improving national security is to drill for more oil domestically, especially in Alaska, while protecting foreign supplies. "We believe we’re going to need more oil and gas in the future, regardless of what else we do," said Bill Bush, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade association in Washington. "There are reasons it makes sense to develop in Alaska. It’s a secure supply and we believe it can be done safely."

But according to the United States Geological Survey and the Union of Concerned Scientists, a technical research group in Washington, at peak production the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may only yield 500,000 barrels a day.

That’s 2.5 percent of today’s demand and less than 1.5 percent of the expected demand a decade from now if nothing changes in how America uses oil. Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, said in an interview, "The environmentalists are right. A lot of conservatives buy into the analysis made by most pro-business groups that without ANWR we are vulnerable to the oil weapon. But you can’t make that case on the grounds of national security. The idea that you can protect yourself from Middle East production behavior by pumping oil out of Alaska is nonsense. There just won’t be enough production there to make a difference."

In other words, say environmental leaders, the United States can not drill its way out of oil dependence. A more rationale response to energy insecurity, say environmental groups, is to focus on alternatives to oil and other fossil fuels, and to reduce demand. Improving the average fuel economy of American vehicles by just 3 miles per gallon, for instance, saves 1 million barrels of oil daily, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, or twice what would be produced in ANWR.

Improving average fuel economy to 40 miles per gallon from the current 27.5 miles per gallon in autos, and 20.5 miles per gallon in light trucks, would save 2.5 million gallons per day, or five times the potential production at ANWR. Last July, the National Academy of Sciences completed a study that found America’s passenger vehicle fleet could attain a 40 miles per gallon average fuel economy within a decade.

For these and other reasons, say environmental organizations, the U.S. has no choice but to choose a different path. In the post September 11 era, environmental organizations are finding a growing audience for their message that security depends in large part on the nation’s ability to more efficiently use energy and natural resources.

"The September 11 attacks added a new dimension to what the environmental community has been saying for years because it is increasingly clear that we have to move beyond oil to find security, and not just energy security," said Mr. Wetstone of the NRDC.

Keith Schneider is an environmental writer and program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. A version of this article was published by www.gristmagazine.com. Reach Mr. Schneider at keith@mlui.org. For more examples of the Institute’s first-rate environmental journalism see www.mlui.org.
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