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Bush energy plan analysis

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Energy: How to Get More for Less

by James Barrett

The Bush energy plan, released last week amid much fanfare, got one thing right: there are no short-term solutions the White House could offer to solve our current energy problems. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer any plausible long-term solutions either.

Like a teenager with a new credit card, the United States has been on a shopping spree lately. We have been voracious consumers of energy for decades, partly because we have the lowest energy prices in the developed world. With bargains like these, how could we afford not to buy?

But now, with the bills coming due, facing the first real energy crunch since the oil embargo of the 1970s, Bush’s solution is to buy more. Having maxed out all of our old credit cards, the administration’s solution is to apply for new ones, even though we all know that we can’t keep spending like this forever.

The most unfortunate aspect of the Bush energy plan is that it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of our options. The administration would have us believe that our only choices are to find and burn more energy, or to do without — to limit our way of life. But the choice between drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and turning off our air conditioners is a false one.

There is a way that we can keep our air conditioners and our economy humming without digging up every place that might have some energy in it. Since the 1970s, the beginning of the last oil shortage, the U.S. economy has become much more energy efficient, with only a little help from the federal government.

Rather than learning to do without, we have learned to do more with less. American producers and consumers have become more efficient, so that per dollar of income, we use 40% less energy than we did 25 years ago. Research at the Department of Energy and elsewhere has found that with a little investment from the government, we can improve even more.

It’s like one of those wholesale clubs. We can pay a little now to join, and in return get discounts on all the things for which we would normally pay full price. But rather than helping us sign up for the discounts, the Bush plan would sign us up for more credit cards instead.

And at the same time that the White House is telling us that we need to buy more, not less, it’s also slashing funding for energy efficiency research and gutting the efficiency standards put in place by the Clinton Administration.

By framing a debate in which the only alternative to buying more oil and other fuels is to tighten our belts, Bush is trying to cast himself as the savior of the American way of life. Anyone who disagrees with him is downright un-American.

Despite the lip service he has been giving efficiency and conservation over the last few days, Bush’s plan is clearly all about spending more and more on coal, oil, and natural gas. He’ll give back the money he cut from efficiency budgets, but only if we let Big Oil drill in the Wildlife Refuge.

Sadly, he’s got it exactly wrong. By pushing a plan that short-changes efficiency and accelerates the pursuit for more energy, he is actively promoting dependence on volatile energy markets and increasing our vulnerability to price spikes like the ones we are seeing today.

With this plan, Bush has made it clear that he has no interest in changing the system that sends us into a panic and drains our family budgets every time energy prices go up. Instead of using the government to help us find ways to get more for our money, he is urging us to sign every credit card offer that lands in the mailbox.

James Barrett is an environmental economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.