U.S. Energy Policy: The Fierce Urgency of Never

America is yearning for leadership, and energy policy is another area where it is lacking. Democrats argue we must do more to promote and develop alternative fuels. Republicans counter that there is no alternative to oil and gas in the short term and that we need to increase our domestic output to secure our energy supply.

Both of these positions are correct, but they are also dogmatic. So instead of a realistic energy policy that actually does something about the problem, all we get is more and more political bickering. Democrats and Republicans are fiddling while our energy supply, literally, burns. 

Proponents of renewable energy unfairly criticize Republicans for being beholden to big oil and refusing to help find new, alternative sources of energy. Many of these activists demand that we immediately reduce our consumption of oil even though we don’t have sufficient alternatives to meet our energy needs. This is not a serious argument. 

Nonrenewable fossil fuels account for more than 85% of the energy we use. It’s unrealistic to claim that we can meaningfully reduce our consumption of oil in the short term because there are currently no real alternatives. And many of the energy proposals designed to reduce our consumption of oil will only exacerbate the problem. 

President Obama’s fuel efficiency requirements won’t do much to reduce oil consumption in the short term. The President claims, with some validity, that we have to start somewhere and we can’t afford to postpone action.  But what he doesn’t realize is that in the long term, policies such as this perpetuate our dependence on nonrenewable energy. 

By setting goals to reduce oil consumption instead of focusing most of our efforts on alternative energy, Obama is conceding that fossil fuels will be America’s main source of energy for decades to come. Instead, the President should be working towards an American economy that is fueled by new, alternative energy sources. 

In a recent press conference on energy prices, President Obama spent nearly all of his time discussing ways to boost domestic oil production. Then he threw in this line: “By 2035, 80 percent of our electricity will come from a broad array of clean energy sources.” But besides the typical rhetoric of biofuels, clean coal, and wind power, he offered no specifics. He also didn’t explain why or how he expected his plan to succeed when similar efforts from presidents of both parties never got off the ground. 

We do need to increase our domestic oil production in the near term to meet our pressing energy needs. But unless we make a serious effort to find new ways to fuel our country, we are just perpetuating the problem, endangering America’s security and prosperity, and kicking the can down the road. 

Fossil fuels drive our economy and account for more than 85% of all the energy we use. It is only a matter of time before these fossil fuels dry up. We are on an unsustainable course. The longer America waits to address the problem, the more serious the problem will become (see Social Security and Medicare). By contrast, by finding and creating new energy sources we can avoid the problem, make America a world leader on energy, and create a new, extremely profitable sector of our economy. 

What we need are serious efforts and policies to help spur innovation and increase funding for new sources of energy. Instead, politicians in Washington are calling for tax increases on energy in the middle of a recession. This will not solve the problem. Energy Secretary Chu has said he would like to see gas prices rise, presumably in part so that Americans will consider alternatives. But unless there are alternatives, higher gas prices will just be another burden on the American people. 

Republicans have a chance to take the lead on energy policy, but they haven’t done so yet. Like President Obama, they are focusing their efforts on increasing domestic production, while only mentioning in passing that we need to find new and alternative energy sources. 

This is not the energy policy that Americans want. A recent Gallup poll found that 66% of Americans chose “development of alternative energy such as wind and solar power as the preferred approach for addressing energy concerns, while 26% [chose] production of more oil, gas, and coal supplies.” As is usually the case, good policy makes good politics.

And the political party that embraces good policy will win the support of the American people.  

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David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.

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