“America is addicted to oil.”
With these five words in his State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush confounded steadfast allies on energy policy and emboldened his bitterest enemies. Political sages often counsel paying more attention to deeds than to words, but in this case, the President’s irresponsible rhetoric is likely to have far more damaging consequences than the minor policy changes he went on to recommend.
The addiction remark was the top headline in newspapers across the country and around the world. Environmental pressure groups quickly jumped on the President for admitting the obvious while still refusing to do anything about it. For example, Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote: “It was bizarre … this President seems clueless about addiction. You don’t follow up your first acknowledgement of your problem by saying that in 15 or 20 years you will cut back or seek treatment.”
Fill Your Chevy
The environmentalists are correct that the policies offered don’t amount to much. Bush proposed to reduce our oil imports from the Middle East by 75% by 2025 by increasing funding for research into new energy technologies by 22%. For automobiles, the President has decided that the fuel of the near future is going to be ethanol produced “not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks or switch grass.”
Bush’s goal is meaningless. Only 20% of our current imports come from the Middle East, but even if it were zero, supply disruptions there (or anywhere) will raise the price of oil for everyone, because prices are set in a world market.
Second, the policies proposed are ridiculous. Over the past 35 years, the Department of Energy has spent billions and billions of taxpayer dollars on research into the not-so-new technologies referred to in the President’s speech without much to show for it. For example, ethanol (that is, ethyl alcohol—the stuff we drink) can be made from cellulosic materials such as wood chips, but decades of research have so far failed to make production commercially viable even with the huge federal subsidies ethanol producers receive.
Even if you agree with the goal and the policies, calling our use of oil an addiction is still a huge mistake. No one is addicted to oil or gasoline. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with a sudden urge to sneak out of the house and go top off my Chevy’s tank at the nearest pusher’s roadside stand. I do buy lots of gasoline because it’s the best value product that gives me the mobility to do what I want to do.
Making us feel guilty about using energy is bad enough. Much worse is the implication that the producers of petroleum products are somehow doing something immoral by selling a product that we would be better off without. Thus President Bush has contributed significantly to the ongoing process of de-legitimizing (and even demonizing) the oil industry and is thereby undermining the ability of one of our most vital industries to continue to produce all the energy we need.
Five Little Words
This is not just a theoretical possibility. The day after his speech, environmental groups were sending out lists of all the policies that would be necessary to get us off our oil habit. These include much higher corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards for cars and trucks, much higher gas taxes, and windfall-profits taxes on oil company profits. Although the White House also said the next day that the administration still fully supports the pro-energy policies that Bush campaigned on in the 2000 and 2004 elections, his five little words had already worsened the prospects in Congress for legislation to open a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or offshore areas in the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas production. And Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) immediately used the President’s speech to call for anti-trust investigations of excessive oil company profits.
Environmentalists have been pushing the oil addiction talk for years. Now and for years to come, whenever anyone argues for policies that would help increase oil supplies and keep gasoline affordable, they will be able to reply, “Even President Bush agrees that we need to kick the oil habit.”