Energy Policy Straight Talk From Elizabeth Kolbert

Back in his Straight Talkin’ days Senator John McCain acknowledged that offshore drilling wasn’t a viable solution for America’s energy troubles. In 2003, he broke with the Bush Administration and co-introduced legislation to reduce carbon emissions, by, in effect, imposing a price on them. McCain had a reputation for being a politician who told the American people the truth, even when the truth wasn’t something that people particularly wanted to hear. But the past few weeks have seen a fundamental change in McCain, writes Elizabeth Kolbert in an outstanding piece in this week’s New Yorker:

He has hired new advisers, and with them he seems to have worked out a new approach. He is no longer telling the sorts of hard truths that people would prefer not to confront, or even half-truths that they might find vaguely discomfiting. Instead, he’s opted out of truth altogether.

So, what is the hard truth about America’s energy predicament? Kolbert goes on:

The Department of Energy estimates that there are eighteen billion barrels of technically recoverable oil in offshore areas of the continental United States that are now closed to drilling. This sounds like a lot, until you consider that oil is a globally traded commodity and that, at current rates of consumption, eighteen billion barrels would satisfy less than seven months of global demand. A D.O.E. report issued last year predicted that it would take two decades for drilling in restricted areas to have a noticeable effect on domestic production, and that, even then, "because oil prices are determined on the international market," the impact on fuel costs would be "insignificant."

If the hard truth is that the federal government can’t do much to lower gas prices, the really hard truth is that it shouldn’t try to.

With just five per cent of the world’s population, America accounts for twenty-five per cent of its oil use. This disproportionate consumption is one of the main reasons that the United States-until this year, when China overtook it-was the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. (Every barrel of oil burned adds roughly a thousand pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.) No matter how many warnings about the consequences were issued-by NASA, by the United Nations, by Al Gore, by the Pope-Americans seemed unfazed. Even as the Arctic ice cap visibly melted away, they bought bigger and bigger cars and drove them more and more miles.

The impact of rising fuel prices, by contrast, has been swift and appreciable. According to the latest figures from the Federal Highway Administration, during the first five months of this year Americans drove thirty billion fewer miles than they did during the same period last year.

Read on…

  • James

    One of, if not THE biggest failure of those advocating for a sustainable energy policy is the belief that you can ask Americans to do the right thing and they will respond. The list of token energy-saving measures at the end of the film “An Inconvenient Truth” is a perfect example of this flawed idea. Experience is in this decade is showing us that’s not how things really tend to work – maybe it was the case once upon a time that this society could be asked to share in sacrifice toward a larger goal, but I think any possibility of this was dead by the end of the 1960s.

    In 2008, “doing the right thing” when it comes to energy and the environment has to be regulated into place. However, mob rule would have us slash, drill, and burn our way straight to hell – just look at those drilling poll numbers. And so this is the predicament we find ourselves in today. I really wonder if there’s a way out of this given the massive level of public innumeracy and ignorance on these fundamental issues that these poll results are showing.

  • Spot shortages of gasoline and heating oil would change some minds, especially if accompanied by chaos and violence. Rolling blackouts would help too.

  • gecko

    Scale-appropriate change has to take place at the city-state level or higher. Bloomberg took the initiative but, just a baby step with PlanNYC and it’s clear he knows it.

    On the level of Al Gore’s most recent fossil-free electric energy initiative would be conversion to urban hybrid human-electric transport and transit and a built environment retrofit to near net-zero energy use both totally achievable with the immediate benefit that things would work a lot better at lower cost.

  • meagen

    Fair enough. But why doesn’t Streetsblog equally criticize Obama’s flip on drilling as well?

  • Max Rockatansky

    As much as I hated Obama’s statement on drilling at least he acknowledged that the impact would be neglibible. The sole purpose would be to smooth the political process.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Is smoothing the political process a problem or a solution? I’m confused.

  • gecko

    Insight into what Kolbert may be driving at might come from her 6/9/08 New Yorker article “Dymaxion Man” on Buckminster Fuller describing him as “also deeply pessimistic about people’s capacity for change, which was why, he said, he had become an inventor in the first place.”

    New York City represents 8 million people. The New York Metropolitan Region represents 16 million as the center of the Northeast United States: the world’s third largest economy.

    Change will come from the top down by people in charge running big government, public, and private institutions grappling with the big picture of a crisis unfolding.


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