When you drive through northern Illinois near Peru, 50 miles southwest of Chicago, hundreds of tall windmills appear on the horizon, slowly turning in unison. They produce electricity with no pollution.
Forests of windmills also change the rural landscape. Their clean white industrial lines seem out of place in the cornfields, among the wooden barns. But we need their output and every other productive energy source, because we are the world’s energy hogs.
The US is the second greatest producer of oil and natural gas, just behind Russia. But we are the fourth largest importer of natural gas, and by far the largest importer of oil. We account for about 20% of the world’s total energy consumption with 5% of its population, more than twice as much per person as other highly industrialized countries. We rely on oil, natural gas and coal far more than other fully modern nations, who use more power from water, wind, and sun.
The only bright spot in our energy picture is that we use a bit less energy per person than 20 years ago. But in China and India and a host of other nations energy usage is increasing at an accelerating pace, as they raise their standards of living. The price of our imported energy can only go up as demand multiplies. Staying in place means a very expensive energy future.
The two parties approach that future very differently, because energy and environmental politics are intertwined. The clash of energy philosophies has been symbolized for decades by the huge Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Republicans have pushed to open the ANWR to oil drilling, while Democrats have resisted. Bill Clinton as President vetoed a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House clashed during the presidency of George Bush, who supported drilling there. The latest vote in the House in February saw nearly 90% of Democrats vote against drilling and 90% of Republicans vote for.
New energy sources have transplanted this conflict to new locations. In the controversies over offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, retrieving gas in the shale under the Midwest states through fracking, and the proposed Keystone pipeline from Canada to Texas, the same argument remains unresolved. Democrats want to lessen the threats to the environment, and study the health of people who live in affected areas, while Republicans want to forge ahead, repeating their mantra “Drill, baby, drill.”
While Republicans stress increased production of oil and gas, Democrats favor using government funds to encourage renewable energy sources. Republicans have gleefully used the failure of Solyndra, a solar manufacturer supported by the Obama administration, to criticize the idea of shifting to renewables. But nobody wants to keep government out of energy production. The US government, in our names, from 2002 to 2008 gave $72 billion in subsidies to fossil-fuel based sources and $29 billion to renewable sources, according to a study by the Environmental Law Institute.
Shifting this balance cleanly divides the parties. A Democratic bill in the Senate to reduce the subsidy to the 5 largest oil corporations by about $2.4 billion per year came up for votes in May 2011 and March 2012. Both times nearly every Democrat voted for it and nearly every Republican voted against it, so there were not sufficient votes to prevent a Republican filibuster. To put those numbers in perspective, those corporations made $134 billion in profits in 2011.
How much energy do we need? What would reducing our energy usage as a nation look like?
The reduction in American per capita energy usage comes from a major increase in the gas mileage of automobiles and trucks, which has already saved billions of gallons of oil imports. When the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were first enacted by Congress in 1975, in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, cars averaged under 13 miles per gallon. Mileage was doubled by 1985, but then Republican presidents or Republican congressional majorities blocked further legislation proposed by Democrats. However, the rise in gas prices and the competition from highly efficient Japanese cars forced American car manufacturers to raise their fuel efficiency without government regulation.
In 2007, the Democratic Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation to raise CAFE standards to 35 mpg by 2020. One of President Obama’s first legislative successes was to move that forward to 2016. This August, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. auto fleet will average 54.5 mpg by 2025, a goal endorsed by both industry and environmentalists. Mitt Romney has said that he would repeal these standards.
Regulations and subsidies are not the only governmental actions that could help solve our energy problems. Communicating useful information could also contribute. For example, few people know that three-quarters of the electricity used by home electronics is consumed while the products are off. Unplugging appliances or using power strips between electronic devices and power sources could save us all money and reduce electricity demands.
Maintaining our wasteful national lifestyle and relying on underground sources of energy means watching other nations take the lead toward an affordable energy future. With the right policies, the US could eventually become an exporter of both fuels and energy technology. Doing nothing now means falling further behind over the next ten years.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 2, 2012