Energy independence and the American dream

Both Kerry and Bush recognise the need for alternatives to fossil fuels. Yet neither show any desire to address the US's bulimic consumption patterns.

October 1, 2004
4 min read

George Bush’s acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination made no mention of climate change. During the party convention Laura Bush had described watching her husband ‘wrestling with these agonising decisions that would have such profound consequences for so many lives and for the future of our world’. This clearly hadn’t involved much hand-wringing over the issue that will define the way in which we organise human society in the 21st century. Dubya did refer to a shift in energy policy, however, promising that the Republicans would make the US ‘less dependent on foreign sources of energy’. At the Democratic convention John Kerry had declared a similar goal: a ‘path to energy independence’. Such a policy could have significant environmental consequences, even if it were motivated less by concern for the planet than by concern over the price of oil – and the number of body bags returning from Iraq. For any US plan for energy independence would have to include a reduced use of the fossil fuels that accelerate climate change.

Both parties’ claims are, of course, unrealistic. Energy independence would mean finding different sources for more than half of the oil consumed in the US: 60 per cent of the daily total, to be exact. (Roughly a quarter of the US’s oil currently comes from the Middle East.) The natural instinct of Bush the oilman is to replace that oil with a home-grown variety of the same product, and his eagerness to drill in wilderness areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is no secret. That definitely would reduce the US’s reliance on imported oil: according to the US Geological Survey, oil from the refuge could replace imports from Saudi Arabia for nearly 20 years. Yet domestically sourced oil still couldn’t keep up with consumption; nor would it ease the increasing pressure on the US to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by burning less oil.

At the moment, Kerry is opposing opening up the Arctic, although he too is happy to dabble in fossil fuels. Both Republicans and Democrats are, for example, keen to extend natural gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and to construct a pipeline bringing natural gas from Canada and Alaska. However, both parties have recognised that alternative sources of fuel are part of the energy picture. Unfortunately, both support nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels, despite its pollution, safety issues and emission of carbon dioxide at various stages of its life cycle.

As far as less polluting alternatives go, Kerry aims to generate 20 per cent of the nation’s motor fuel and electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. This is an ambitious plan, particularly as figures from the US Energy Department show that only 1.5 per cent of motor fuel currently comes from alternative sources and 6 per cent of electricity comes from renewables. Kerry aims to meet his 2020 target through a $20 billion ‘energy security and conservation trust fund’, half of which is to be used to support

US car manufacturers in developing and building more fuel-efficient vehicles. One of the much-publicised fuel-efficient vehicles on sale in the States this summer is Ford’s new Escape Hybrid sports-utility vehicle. Described by Ford as ‘a vehicle that can take you to the very places you’re helping to preserve’, its critics have termed it a ‘patch job’ from the company with the lowest fuel-economy rate of the US’s major vehicle manufacturers. A hybrid engine (part petrol-powered, part electric) is a step in the right direction – so long as the electricity used is generated from renewables rather than nuclear or fossil fuels. But Kerry’s refusal to challenge the prominence of the private motor car, and to remind US citizens of how their railroads were ripped up to make room for highways, and how the production of these machines is incredibly resource-intensive and polluting, is symbolic of wider political problems.

To have any chance of getting elected a presidential candidate needs to assure US citizens that their way of life will not be threatened. Yet that way of life relies on a globally unfair distribution of resources, including energy resources. Energy independence would involve more than tinkering with vehicle efficiency; it has implications not just for foreign policy, but for the consumption patterns that underscore the entire American dream.

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