With the BP oil leak passing its 80th day and tar balls washing up on every Gulf state’s beaches, you’d think we’d have something close to consensus on the need for a comprehensive energy plan, a bipartisan push for energy independence that allows us to finally get serious about kicking our addiction to oil.
But nooooo, as John Belushi said during the 1970s—when another president first began talking about energy independence. Instead we’ve got gridlock courtesy of a Congress where cooperation is considered collaboration and short-term political gain always outweighs long-term solutions.
VIEW OUR GALLERY of the 13 politicians responsible for keeping us addicted to oil.
Confused, I called a range of experts, asking whose ass we should kick on this. And what I found is that there’s no individualized rogue list but instead broad systemic failure with plenty of blame to go around, from thousands of industry lobbyists wielding millions of dollars for their interests to polarized politicians unwilling to compromise. The result is not a plan but a kind of soft collusion that mistakes taxpayer money for real movement.
“The real problem is our bipartisan addiction to oil,” says The Economist’s Vijay Vaitheeswaran, author of the excellent Power to the People and Zoom. “Look at Congress since FDR, Democrats and Republicans enacting essentially the same energy policy, despite rhetoric beginning with Nixon and Carter about how we were going to kick our addiction to foreign oil.”
“The oil industry has successfully lobbied Washington and convinced the American people that what’s good for Big Oil is what’s good for America,” Vaitheeswaran continued. “Oil determines our foreign policy in the Middle East and domestic policy with tax breaks and subsidies.The language and rhetoric may be different between the two parties, but if you look at the tax code, where the rubber meets the road, and you’ll see that the energy industry has been able to get what it wants regardless of who is in power.”
But the problems go beyond bipartisan buyoffs, especially when you consider the roadblocks placed before alternative-energy development. “Everybody in the current structure has a veto,” says John Dyson, who was chairman of the New York State Power Authority under Governors Carey and Cuomo. “Nobody wants to build new hydro-power plants, because you need to build a dam and environmentalists say ‘no.’ Nobody wants to build new nuclear-power plants because we can’t agree on nuclear waste and transfer. And nobody likes the transmission lines that are necessary to get wind and solar power to where people live. But nobody wants to unplug their toaster.”
And if locally we have a cascading NIMBY problem, in Congress we have the Goldilocks Syndrome run amuck—interest groups and their ideological cheerleaders in Congress decrying various bills as either too much or not enough.
“On one side in the Senate you have [Oklahoma’s James] Inhofe who is totally opposed to any climate part of [energy] legislation,” says Patrick Moore, an early member of Greenpeace who now advocates for nuclear power as the key to clean energy through Greenspirit Strategies in Vancouver. “And then you have [Massachusetts’s Ed] Markey in the House on the Democrats' side as the sort of polar opposite—he is almost fanatical on climate and would drive almost everything from that. And the compromises that people are trying to put together are trying to bridge that gap—it's a huge gap. So there isn't really a common vision on what the energy policy would be.”
Senators Kerry and Lieberman have been trying to shepherd through the American Power Act, with sometime support from South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham. It’s come under criticism from some Senate Democrats for not going far enough, while Republicans are demanding that it remove all cap-and-trade legislation they have rechristened "a national energy tax." But the bill has so far managed to achieve an unprecedented degree of industry support as it inches toward the 60-vote margin.
“The main force blocking a sane energy policy is the fossil-fuel business,” argues Howard Gould, a friend and frequent cable-news commentator who is also managing partner of 90 North Capital, LLC, a clean-energy hedge fund. “They have over five times the amount of lobbyists with much deeper pockets on the Hill. They need to realize that they are working on a 50-year-old business plan and you can’t fight a rising tide, no matter how much money you use to fill sandbags to block it.”
Yet despite the fact that President Obama had essentially adopted John McCain’s "all-of-the-above" energy policy, including increased nuclear power and offshore drilling before BP, we’ve got an energy stalemate during an environmental crisis served with a side order of fear-mongering.
The legacy of the 2002/3 energy bill is its own cautionary tale—which McCain memorably called "the no lobbyist left behind act”—it resulted in locking the U.S. “into a 1970s policy of very centralized, fossil-fuel dependence—which will cost us $32.9 billion in subsidies for oil and gas by 2013,” according to Vaitheeswaran. “Renewable-energy companies are happy to get subsidies and tax credits, but they don't realize these are just crumbs off the table—they are dwarfed by the much bigger handouts given to fossil fuels and nuclear. By asking for such handouts, instead of demanding a genuine level playing field for energy, they are providing a fig leaf for the Big Oil giveaways.”
Looking at the Gulf, anyone not in Congress can see clearly that the status quo is badly broken. Desperate partisan spins on the spill do as little to solve the larger problem as listening to paid shills of the oil companies offering their "perspective" on news programs when their real concern is paying the mortgage. Look at the war against oil-fueled terrorism abroad to see the international implications of inaction. And consider what John Dyson describes as the $50 million to $200 million licensing cost for a new power plant and you can’t just blame private industry for being cautious in an unsure regulatory environment. We’re all a little bit guilty in this energy stalemate, including you and me at home, for wanting to get off oil but being unwilling to pay for it, for promoting bumper-sticker policies and engaging in NIMBY tactics when it comes time to build a power plant or a transmission lines or windmill farm.
From national security to the economy to the environment, there are reasons that appeal across the political spectrum for Washington to get serious about a forward-looking energy policy. Activists on the left and right alike should be able to back ending taxpayer breaks to an oil industry invested in dependence. And if our representatives can’t feel the fierce urgency of now in the face of all these facts, then we have all the more reason to add fuel to the anti-incumbent fire this election year.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.