Obama’s energy speech: time to walk the walk

President Obama this week laid out a plan to cut dependence on foreign oil by 2025. Forty years ago, Richard Nixon also promised to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. At the time about 34 percent of our oil was imported. A decade later it was 45 percent, and Jimmy Carter was making the same promise. Under George W. Bush, it hit 60 percent. Now the percentage oil imported hovers around 66 percent. The numbers are very discouraging.

If oil imports went down last year, we can thank the Great Recession. Estimates point to a big jump again this year.

We seem to be stuck in reverse. The President says he wants to increase domestic oil production, but the United States only has two percent of the world’s oil reserves. He’d also create more incentives for natural gas, biofuels, and increased conservation.

To quote that great energy expert Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all over again…and again….and again. Meanwhile, we’re now paying up to $3.79 a gallon for gas and that will likely go up this summer. As the President acknowledged, when prices are high, we panic; when they go down, we hit the snooze button. But significant action is long overdue.

We have to fight inertia and distrust. There’s heightened anxiety about offshore drilling in the wake of the BP oil spill. Japan’s tsunami-prompted nuclear reactor breakdowns have probably slowed what was a new awakening of the potential for nuclear. Coal advocates promote its relative safety, though even the new iteration – “clean coal” – doesn’t inspire confidence .

Wind, solar and other alternatives produce only three percent of our energy, and there’s no sustained plan to support expansion; some years there are tax credits; some years there are not. Only oil industry subsidies have staying power. In the 1980’s we led the world in clean energy. Today the United States has slipped to third in the production of solar and wind, behind China and Germany. 

The President called for a long-term energy policy. Congressman Ed Markey and Senator John Kerry have both tried to get comprehensive plans through their respecctive branches. But, in today’s political environment, it will be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to get a truly comprehensive energy plan through Congress. There are too many energy constituencies to get a majority vote on a comprehensive bill. Why can’t our legislators break off one piece at a time and chip away at the problem?

One possibility is to do more with natural gas, which has some bipartisan support in Congress. We have reserves that are equivalent to 700 billion barrels of oil. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was pushing a bill that would provide a tax credit to new vehicles using natural gas. (A similar benefit is already on the books for trash trucks in Southern California.) Or we could start by requiring that all eight million 18-wheelers on the road use that clean and domestically available fuel. Others want to require that all future federal vehicles use domestic fuel as a resource. The President is directing that increased numbers of vehicles in the federal fleet use alternative fuels by a set date.

Why can’t enterprising banks encourage conservation by offering lower rates for mortgage loans on houses that are built with green technology? Why can’t we move more of our own vehicles by bio-fuels as Brazil does? (70 percent of our oil consumption goes for transportation, the second largest chunk out of the household budget.) Other one-off approaches might get through Congress.

The point is: it’s time to do something. Something modest but meaningful. Something that acts on the problem, rather than simply giving another speech about it.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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