Last year California passed legislation that mandates a 25-percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020. And last month an unlikely consortium of ten corporate leaders from the energy, manufacturing, and financial sectors called for phased-in mandatory government caps on carbon dioxide emissions and a cap-and-trade system similar to the one that proved effective in reducing acid rain. When business leaders and environmentalists join forces, something important is happening.
Even President George W. Bush is getting the message—sort of. In his State of the Union address, he finally mentioned the phenomenon of “global climate change.” He avoided the term “global warming.” Using it might have reminded listeners of yet another “inconvenient truth” about his presidency: its failure to address what is arguably the most critical, long-range challenge facing our country—and indeed the world.
Still, after years of denying evidence of global warming, the president’s acknowledgement of “climate change” made headlines. Unfortunately, the remainder of his speech offered only negligible solutions for the nation’s energy and environmental problems, and served as yet another reminder that leadership on these crucial issues will not be forthcoming from this White House.
True, Bush called for stricter fuel-efficiency standards, for stronger efforts to achieve energy independence, and for stockpiling more petroleum for a national emergency. But these proposals, whether taken individually or together, do not address the intractable reality of America’s addiction to imported oil or the potentially devastating threat of global warming.
Gas mileage standards have not changed since 1990, so the president’s call for improvement on that score was tardy, at best. Furthermore, during the same period, U.S. oil imports jumped from 5.9 to 10 million barrels a day, in part because domestic production declined and mileage standards remained flat. Clearly, Bush’s call for greater efficiency merits Congress’s endorsement, but with the number of drivers multiplying and oil production here in decline, his modest efficiency gains will have little effect on overall consumption. Were the president to have seriously encouraged conservation and the use of mass transit, the country might someday come closer to achieving his stated goal. But he failed to do so.
While the president’s call for increasing domestic fuel supplies by 15 percent in ten years is also worthwhile, it will not end our dependency on oil imports; in fact, his touted government-subsidized ethanol program would meet only half of his own goal. Furthermore, some of the other elements in that plan are fraught with huge environmental dangers. The heat-producing gases created by the process of extracting oil from coal, for example, will only add to the environmental threat. Yet these gases are already strangling the atmosphere, and unless they are reduced, they will threaten life as we know it. It is manufacturing and power plants (which produce 25 percent of greenhouse gases), rather than automobiles (13.5 percent), that are the biggest challenge. But on this matter the president was mute.
Finally, the president’s call for expanding the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve by 1.5 billion barrels over twenty years, at a cost of $65 billion, may have merit in terms of national security. It would provide the nation with a ninety-seven-day fuel supply, offering more breathing room in the event of a sudden crisis. Yet the question remains whether the same money could be better spent developing alternative energy sources that would enhance long-term security.
In light of the real energy challenges facing the nation, the president’s recommendations were tepid. They failed to wrestle with our energy needs and the dire consequences of “climate change.” It is emblematic that a year after Bush called for an end to the country’s reliance on foreign oil, his budget for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory remains less than it was at the start of his presidency. As Robert Farrington, a long-time employee at the lab, told the New York Times: “Our budget is nothing compared to the price of a B2 bomber or an aircraft carrier.”
Today, clean renewable energy provides only 6 percent of America’s power needs. There is a vast untapped market for innovation, something state legislatures and the business community are beginning to act on. But it will take national leadership to make any substantive and sustained difference. Congress must do more. Fortunately, four separate Senate proposals dealing with climate change were introduced even before the president’s speech. Those initiatives may have emboldened the business consortium to make its recommendation. Now that Congress and business are getting serious, isn’t it time the president got on board?