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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

The Politics of Energy

A Preface to a Presidency

While many political pundits and apathetic voters complained of the indistinctness of the two major parties' candidates during the most recent presidential campaign, there were indisputable differences between the winner and the loser. An obvious contrast concerned their respective positions on energy policy and environmental protection, and one moment in particular clearly cast their opposing perspectives on these issues.

During the first presidential debate, the candidates were asked about their ideas on how to deal with the soaring gas prices at the pump that many Americans paid during the previous summer. In addressing this question, Republican Texas Governor George W. Bush spoke of our over-reliance on the production and distribution of oil from other countries. To illustrate the evils of our ways, he showcased Iraq as an example of one of these countries. How can we, the viewer was left to wonder, rely on Sadaam Hussein if we are to maintain a stable supply of energy and a prosperous standard of living?

Bush then transitioned into his solution, which noticeably focused on the production side of the energy equation. What we obviously need to do, according to the former oilman, is simply produce more oil at home. That means, for example, drilling in such places as the 1.5-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Juxtaposing this solution with Bush's rhetoric earlier in the campaign about Earth Day, in which he essentially proclaimed that users of the land view every day as one in which to responsibly exploit the earth, one could sum up Bush's positions on energy and the environment with one phrase: Every day is Earth Day, so drill away!

Conversely, when given the opportunity to present his ideas, the Democratic Party's candidate, Vice President Al Gore, spoke of both the production and consumption sides of the energy equation. Yes, Gore said, we need to examine how we can produce more oil at home, but without drilling in such places as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As importantly, according to Gore, we also need to evaluate our consumption patterns. One could infer from Gore's previous positions on environmental protection that such an evaluation may then lead to an allocation of more resources into producing sustainable levels of alternative forms of energy as well as the creation of incentives for people to take significant advantage of these alternative energy sources.

The Bush Energy Policy Platform

Once the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the presidential election to Bush in mid-December, the president-elect began laying the groundwork for his energy policy platform. Around the time of the high court's decision, it was becoming apparent that Californians were experiencing serious growing pains in making the transition from a regulated energy market to a more deregulated one, instigated by the California legislature's passing of landmark energy market deregulation legislation in 1996. Therefore, instead of holding up the recalcitrant Iraqi dictator as the poster child for the necessity of an increase in our production of oil at home, Bush began to speak of a looming energy crisis in the nation, with the earliest indicator of such an emergency in the bellwether state of California.

Interestingly, at about the same time as concerns about California were intensifying, the incoming Bush administration also changed its reasoning for its proposed 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut. During the campaign, Bush pointed to the record federal budget surpluses, and argued that the beloved taxpayers in the heartland were better suited to decide how to spend the surpluses than the heartless bureaucrats in Washington. Once deemed the winner of the election, though, he began speaking of an economic slowdown and an impending recession, without providing sufficient indicators as evidence for such statements, and maintained that his tax cut was necessary to jumpstart a flagging economy.

In late January, with the politics of fear firmly entrenched as a means for justifying his various policy positions, now-president Bush again expressed his deep concern that the energy problems in California were spreading outward in the nation. His solution: Make it easier for power-generating companies to explore, exploit and transport oil and gas for the production of more electricity.

More specifically, Bush proposed a 10-year, $7.1 billion energy policy that focuses mainly on oil and gas development. He proposed to offer tax incentives to promote domestic oil production, as well as allow "environmentally sensitive exploration" (i.e., ease restrictions on drilling for oil and gas) in parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He also offered to grant waivers to states that seek to run older power generating plants at full capacity, even if that means violating federal clean air standards.

In getting his energy agenda enacted into law, Bush is relying on the assistance of a bevy of administration members and elected officials. For example, the president recently named Vice President Dick Cheney, a former oilman himself, to lead a task force on energy policy that includes such incoming notables as Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

Furthermore, recent remarks from Senator Frank Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska and chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, proves that Bush will be aided by others in using the politics of fear as the basis for significant changes in energy policy. According to Senator Murkowski, who is also a big supporter of opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, the energy problems in California are forcing people to wake up to the looming energy crisis. In order to cover all of his political bases, the senator added that we "are now starting to realize that if you just rely on outsiders for your energy you will pay the piper."

A Crisis is in the Eye of the Beholder

At the minimum, all of the rhetoric billowing out of the new administration is motivating some to ask serious questions about the energy situation in California and the rest of the country. What kind of energy crisis is California facing? Is it a shortage in the supply of energy? Or, as has been suggested in recent weeks in a number of newspapers and periodicals, is it an artificial shortage created by wholesalers of energy who tallied record profits in 2000?

Furthermore, however one defines the crisis in California, given the unique nature of the regulatory environment in the Golden State, or the lack of one for that matter, how much does it tell us about the energy situation in other parts of the country? Are we truly facing a problem in the supply of energy? Or, is the current situation giving us subtle and not so subtle hints about the changes that are necessary in our patterns of consumption?

In an environment where the politics of fear rule the day, it is quite difficult to have a productive public discussion on these and other questions regarding the energy issue and its relationship to environmental protection. While on a different set of issues, a case in point from the previous administration was President Clinton's scare tactics surrounding Medicare and Social Security during the 1995 budget showdown with the Republican-controlled Congress. While Clinton was successful in proving his relevance, necessary after the Democrats lost both houses of Congress in 1994, and essentially saved his presidency, the country is still without viable solutions to the problems that both of these massive social programs may face in the future.

Still, even within the ominous cloud that hangs over the near future of energy policy and environmental protection, there may be the proverbial silver lining or two. First, if we take Bush at his word about wanting to work in a bipartisan manner on the problems that face us, perhaps he will expand his platform to accelerate the production of alternative supplies of energy. Maybe he will also include the consumption side of the energy equation in his proposed solutions, and formulate incentives for people to more responsibly consume traditional forms of energy as well as take significant advantage of alternative ones.

Second, assuming, as the guardians of the left would have us believe, that the further degradation of the environment will occur as a result of Bush's policies, such detrimental effects may give us a necessary kick in the pants. As a result, we may demand different energy and environmental policies at the federal level. More importantly, perhaps it will spur us to make different choices about the types and amounts of energies that we consume-for example, through the kinds of houses and cars that we buy.

For the sake of context, it is important to note that in times of relative abundance such as ours, gluttonous behavior runs rampant. Two cases in point are the proliferation of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and resource-intensive trophy homes. Similar to a tennis fan's inclinations toward John McEnroe, you either love them or hate them. So, if Bush's policies motivate us to give up our fuel-hungry vehicles and energy-hoarding 3,500-square-foot living spaces, perhaps the politics of fear, and their accompanying policies, are the medicine that we deserve and need.

Now, if only Ralph Nader and the Green Party had garnered five percent of the vote…!


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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Joseph Kahn and David E. Sanger, "President Offers Plan to Promote Oil Exploration," The New York Times, January 30, 2001.

Alex Berenson, "Ideas & Trends: Short Circuit; Deregulation: A Movement Groping in the Dark," The New York Times, February 4, 2001.

Timothy Egan and Sam Howe Verhovek, "California's Panic Was Moneymaker for Energy Sellers," The New York Times, February 11, 2001.

Gregg Easterbrook, "Brown and Out: Can California's Energy Companies Change a Light Bulb?" The New Republic, February 19, 2001.


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