Do-nothing energy policies
By Paul Driessen
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, "it means just what I choose it to mean."
That's apparently the operative philosophy for many politicians these days. Legislators should be working to ensure that markets work properly, so that we have abundant, reliable, affordable energy – to meet the needs of a growing population and technologies that safeguard and improve our lives.
Our economy's digital infrastructure alone accounts for more than 10% of our electricity demand. Data centers are voracious energy consumers.
Unfortunately, legislative bills could more accurately be called anti-energy and even anti-environment. They may reflect gratitude for special interests that get legislators elected, but they hardly serve the interests of consumers or the nation.
These politicians insist that the United States' output of 5 billion gallons of "renewable" ethanol last year is a great victory for energy independence and the environment. As King Pyrrhus remarked, "One more such victory, and we are ruined."
This heavily subsidized fuel came from a sixth of the Montana-sized 93 million acres America planted in corn in 2006, instead of sowing other crops or leaving land as wildlife habitat. By comparison, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could produce some 21 billion gallons of gasoline annually for 20 years from just 2,000 acres – one-twentieth of Washington, DC.
Moreover, to grow this corn, convert it into ethanol and truck the fuel to gas stations (it cannot be pipelined), we expended billions of gallons of water, millions of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides, and vast amounts of energy. Analyst Michael Economides calculates that it took nearly 9 billion gallons of gasoline equivalent to get that 5 billion gallons of ethanol.
Motorists pay more per tank for this politically correct fuel, but get less mileage than from pure gasoline. Ethanol enriches certain farmers – but raises costs for cattle, pork and chicken farmers, as well as prices of meat, milk, soft drinks, tortillas and countless other products.
When markets do this, Capitol Hill calls it price-gouging. But when politicians do it, they call it consumer protection. Hardest hit are poor families that these pols profess to care about most.
Conservation should be encouraged whenever it makes economic and environmental sense. But where the heavy hand of government is involved, the results can be perverse.
Intense opposition to onshore and offshore drilling means every barrel saved via conservation is offset by several barrels of declining domestic production. Congress has already locked up an estimated 40 billon barrels (1.7 trillion gallons) of onshore and offshore oil. As a result, we are importing increasing amounts from increasingly unfriendly sources. We need that oil – not more snake oil. But instead, we're locking up our natural gas, too, and promoting other equally questionable ideas.
Mandating that we use millions of expensive compact fluorescent lightbulbs could result in vast quantities of mercury heading to landfills or high-cost recycling centers.
Tougher mileage standards could mean more miles driven in vehicles that are more fuel efficient because they are lighter, less able to haul heavy loads, and more likely to cause thousands of additional injuries and deaths. (Perhaps the term Corporate Average Fuel Economy or CAFÉ should be replaced with Conserve Our Refined Petroleum to Save the Environment – or CORPSE.) Other ideas make more sense.
Streamline traffic flow, especially along main corridors during rush hour. Too many lights are timed to impede traffic, as along Routes 50 and 123 through Fairfax, VA and Route 202 in Wilmington-Talleyville, DE. In this computerized era, that is unacceptable.
Eliminate toll booths, especially along interstates like I-95 in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. The gasoline wasted and pollution emitted by cars waiting to get to booths or EZPass lanes is monumental – and any revenues collected are more than offset by wages and taxes lost because workers are stuck for hours in miles-long parking lots. Besides, interstates were built with federal tax dollars, and should not be subjected to interstate-commerce-choking state revenuers.
We might even consider eliminating air-conditioning in the 1,500 federally owned buildings. This would save energy, ensure that government focuses on high-priority items, protect taxpayers and small businesses from hyper-regulation at least a few months a year, and help achieve Rep. Nancy Pelosi's goal of a carbon-neutral Congress – without relying on phony "carbon offset" indulgences.
However, even concerted common-sense conservation won't alter a basic fact: America needs more energy – especially electricity – to support economic freedom, health, industry and modern living standards. Where will that energy come from?
Coal generates 52% of the electricity America uses: over 300,000 Megawatts. Its low cost per kilowatt-hour is a blessing for poor families, businesses, manufacturing and jobs. And over the coming decade, new technologies will eliminate most remaining power plant emissions.
But green activists and politicians say carbon dioxide from coal-fueled power plants causes disastrous climate change. Numerous scientists disagree with this dire assessment – and with the notion that humans have suddenly supplanted the sun and other natural forces that caused innumerable climate shifts throughout Earth's history.
Moreover, if we curtail coal use, what will replace it? Congress continues to make oil and gas prospects off limits to drilling. Liquefied natural gas requires ports that greens and local communities oppose. And reliance on these globally traded resources puts additional upward pressure on prices.
Many greens and politicians also oppose nuclear power and waste repositories. Their substitute of choice is wind turbines. "Socially responsible" companies like those in the Climate Action Partnership want to sell more of them. So they support subsidies and mandates, to "save the world from climate apocalypse."
However, wind supplies only 0.4% of US electrical output – and the unreliable electricity it generates must be backed up by instant-on (peaking capacity) power plants that burn the natural gas that legislators have put off limits. Otherwise, traffic lights, schools, offices, assembly lines and operating rooms go black whenever the wind stops blowing.
In fact, for every 10 MW of wind power, you need 9 MW of gas, says Wood McKenzie vice president Bob Fleck. And those new gas power plants increase wind energy costs dramatically – up to twice as much as for electricity generated from existing coal plants. Wealthy activists, politicians and celebrities may not mind. But minority and other poor families would be hammered.
Wind power also requires vast stretches of land – much of it once-scenic wildlife habitat. Replacing just one-third of all coal-fired generating capacity with wind farms would require blanketing an area the size of Virginia and North Carolina with huge turbines. We'd also need some 200 new gas-fired power plants – or a new breed of Americans who don't mind repeated power outages.
People sense that they are getting do-nothing energy bills from a do-nothing Congress. That may help explain the dismal 14% approval rating Congress received in recent polls.
Anti-fossil-fuel politicians and environmentalists want to encumber and dismantle the energy and economic system that has brought so much opportunity and prosperity. But do they have the ability or wisdom to create a new to take its place? If only we could use their hot air to generate electricity.
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality and Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power ∙ Black death.