September 13, 2004

Looking for Energy in the Campaign

Presidential candidates have long dangled the promise of "energy independence" in front of the American voter. And all have known that it is an unattainable goal, largely because the United States, which uses one-quarter of the world's oil production, owns less than 3 percent of the world's oil reserves. What America can do, however, is reduce imports - by producing cars that require less gasoline and by developing other fuels that cars can run on. Over time, such a strategy could enhance our energy security and give us more influence over prices. It would also make a big dent in America's emissions of global warming gases.

John Kerry has an opportunity here. Rising gasoline prices and instability in the Persian Gulf have made energy a livelier campaign issue than usual. And while Mr. Kerry has hardly been immune to rhetorical overreach, he offers an energy agenda more adventurous than anything proposed by the Bush administration.

Mr. Kerry's approach is expensive, however, and depends on his ability to persuade voters that the government can afford his proposals. He wants to create a $5 billion incentive program to help automakers retool their assembly lines to produce more efficient cars, and he would spend the same amount on consumer tax incentives to get people to buy them. In effect, Mr. Kerry would put a ton of money on the table to help Detroit move from the comfortably profitable world of S.U.V.'s to a riskier universe of gas-electric hybrid cars.

He would also lavish billions on a large and aggressive "biofuels" program that would seek gasoline substitutes not only from corn - the basis of today's narrowly based ethanol program - but also from a whole range of agricultural products. Some experts believe that such cellulosic fuels could eventually replace one-quarter of the gasoline used today and could also provide an income stream for farmers when the cushy export subsidies that now distort world agricultural markets come to an end.

Reducing oil dependency is one big part of the Kerry plan. Learning to live with coal is the other. For all the talk about alternatives fuels like wind and solar power, which both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush endorse, coal remains central to the American economy. It produces 56 percent of the nation's electricity, and its role is likely to grow as prospects for big new natural gas discoveries shrink. (Nuclear power has its enthusiasts, though judging by the few noncommittal paragraphs in his energy plan, Mr. Kerry is not among them). Yet coal is also a big contributor to smog, acid rain, mercury pollution and global warming. So Mr. Kerry would crank up the subsidy machine again to develop and deploy new technologies that strip the coal of pollutants before it is burned and, in the case of carbon dioxide, inject them into the ground.

President Bush can fairly claim to have endorsed most of these ideas. But Mr. Kerry is offering more muscular programs and, if words mean anything, a more robust commitment to seeing them through. Mr. Bush's tax incentives are too small to make much difference to the automakers or to consumers. His clean coal program has been slow off the mark. And while he has expanded research into hydrogen-powered cars - a potentially useful technology that Mr. Kerry also endorses - Mr. Bush has used hydrogen's long-term promise as an excuse to let Detroit off the hook now.

Even the president's more innovative ideas are secondary to his dominant strategy of ramping up production of oil and gas, the centerpiece of which is his proposal to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. This strategy of emphasizing energy production over energy efficiency had its roots in Vice President Dick Cheney's famously secret energy task force in 2001 and reached full flower in two dreadful energy bills. Mr. Kerry opposed the Senate version, and his campaign literature explicitly rejects drilling in environmentally sensitive areas.

On two counts, Mr. Kerry's program is irritatingly disingenuous. As a candidate for the nomination, he was openly proud of his Senate vote to require a 50 percent increase in fuel economy standards. As a presidential candidate, however, he has reduced this ambitious but achievable goal to a softer (and, to Michigan voters, much less threatening) pledge to "update and strengthen'' fuel standards.

As a candidate for the nomination, Mr. Kerry also described climate change as the world's "most serious environmental challenge." Global warming, he suggested, was at least as important a reason for reducing fossil fuel use as ending dependency and bringing down prices at the pump. But his recent literature mentions climate change only in passing, and fails to mention at all his vigorous support for legislation that would set strict caps on emissions of carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas - legislation that Mr. Bush opposes.

One can understand Mr. Kerry's wish to avoid the subject of emissions caps in coal-producing states like West Virginia, where caps are controversial. But he knows that without regulatory limits on greenhouse gases, industry is less likely to develop and deploy the technologies that he hopes will lead us all to a leaner and cleaner energy future. The same can also be said of stricter fuel economy standards. History shows that progress on energy issues usually requires sticks as well as carrots, and to pretend otherwise rings false.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top