April 29, 2006

April 29, 2006 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

U.S. energy policy threatens our security

It's easy to identify the roots of our dysfunctional national energy policy. Knee-jerk environmentalism, "not in my backyard" parochialism, or the ferocious zeal of entrenched special interests repeatedly combine to block good ideas or promote bad ones.

The route to true energy independence will require simultaneous progress on many fronts, none of which is by itself a silver bullet. Sadly, Congress has considered and thus far rejected many sensible proposals that, had they prevailed, would have improved our energy situation significantly.

Examples include our unwillingness to recover the billions of barrels of oil and equivalent amounts of natural gas from the remote, desert-like tundra of Arctic Alaska and the waters under the Gulf of Mexico and along both coasts.

Meanwhile, our government refuses to build the next generation of clean nuclear power plants and can't even find the political will to open a safe repository to store nuclear waste.

Finally, there are the impregnable environmental bottlenecks that have created artificial shortages of gasoline in many parts of the country, prevented the construction of new oil refineries and limited our use of the vast quantities of domestic coal.

Perhaps the ultimate example of the Lilliputians' prevailing in the energy wars can be seen in the local opposition to an innovative plan to construct 130 windmills in Nantucket Sound. This "wind farm" would provide 75 percent of the power required for all the homes and businesses on Cape Cod and the elite playgrounds of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.

Remarkably, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the environmentalist nephew of Sen. Edward Kennedy, objects to the plan, ostensibly because the spinning blades on the windmills might kill some migrating seabirds and threaten the livelihoods of a few fishermen. The real reason that Kennedy and his uncle object to the plan -- and have successfully inserted language to bar the project in legislation reauthorizing the Coast Guard -- was dryly summed up by the Congressional Quarterly: "The windmills," CQ noted, "would become part of the vista from the Kennedy family's Hyannisport compound." Can you say NIMBY?

Environmentalists have mastered the art of energy obstructionism. But what if a new political dynamic emerged that could tip the balance in favor of the quest for energy independence?

A recent poll offers lawmakers a glimpse of how they might transcend the decades-old tension between energy and environmental concerns. "Virtually all Americans surveyed (90 percent)," reports Daniel Yankelovich, the chairman of the polling group Public Agenda, "said they see the United States' lack of energy independence as jeopardizing the country's security."

Indeed, Yankelovich found that, when asked about a variety of proposals relating to national security, "reducing energy dependence ranked second only to improving the effectiveness of our intelligence operations." Noting a surge of concern on this issue, Yankelovich believes energy independence has reached a political "tipping point." Americans are unlikely to tolerate the political gridlock any longer, Yankelovich concludes, because they now believe the government could take steps to decrease our reliance on foreign sources of energy.

Enter Sen. Larry Craig (R.-Idaho), who last week offered his colleagues a sobering assessment of how this new dynamic might work. According to Craig, in February 2005 the U.S. Geological Survey "reported on a possible deposit in the North Cuban Basin [50 to 60 miles off the Florida coast] estimated at 4.6 billion barrels of oil, and possibly as much as 9.3 billion barrels." Not surprisingly, over the last two years Cuba has filled the vacuum created by the Clinton-era moratorium on offshore drilling in these waters by contracting with the People's Republic of China to recover this valuable resource.

"The American public," Craig asserted, "would be shocked, as this country is trying to reduce its dependency on Middle East oil, that countries such as China are realizing this energy resource." China, he continued, "is using the area off our coast…as a strategic commodity reserve" and "thereby forever closing the door on those resources to the United States itself."

"Stand on a high place in the lower Florida Keys," he concluded, "and [someday] you may see an oil rig, and it will not be ours. It could be Red China's…and they are drilling in our backyard."

Kudos are in order to Craig for breathing new life into the debate over the off-shore drilling moratorium. Let's hope his revelations create the momentum required to break at least one of these seemingly unending battles to liberate our economy from dependence on oil from unstable and hostile nations in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events Online