- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009


This week’s renewed violence in the Middle East reminds us of the perils of our addiction to oil. The human tragedy in the region is bad enough. But once again, forces beyond our control imperil America’s economic fortunes by playing havoc on oil prices and supply.

Energy independence has bedeviled policymakers for at least four decades. In the 1970s we only imported a little over a third of our oil. But even that seemed too high. So President Nixon announced “Project Independence,” a plan to end reliance on imports by 1980. Since then, all successive presidents lamented our dependence and called for greater freedom. During those years Congress also passed measures aimed at increasing supply and curbing demand. The result? American energy dependence continued to rise. Today we import nearly 70 percent of our oil. What went wrong? And how can policymakers stop the cycle of failure? First, they need to think bigger. We’ve reached a tipping point on energy. The economic, national security and environmental consequences have now all converged to produce a mandate for major change. I recently watched a webcast of a speech T. Boone Pickens delivered at Georgetown University early in the year. Mr. Pickens recounts a conversation he had with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama about electric vehicles. Mr. Obama said during the campaign that he wanted to produce a million electric cars. “A million?” Mr. Pickens asked. With 250 million cars on the road, we need a lot more electric vehicles to make a difference. After thinking about it, Mr. Pickens recounts, the president-elect agreed.

The anecdote is a microcosm of a larger problem — policymakers think too narrowly about our energy problems and put forward solutions that hardly dent the oilcan. The result? We’ve had episodic energy policy activity with little tangible accomplishment. Too many disputes about parts of the problem — fights over drilling, conservation, efficiency standards - without agreeing on a specific goal and sticking to it. Yet in a post-9/11 world and wild gyrations in oil prices, Americans are ready for bold new approaches.

In his new book “Hot, Flat and Crowded”, Tom Friedman argues Americans need to learn we need systemic change — not just throw a “green party” because it’s now chic. Yet systemic change is also hard. But here’s the second key. Our political leaders must better engage all Americans in understanding the scope of the problem and the menu of solutions. Surveys reveal citizens want to help but often don’t know how. Or even if they understand some of the tools, they don’t get how their contributions move us toward a national goal — especially if the objective is fuzzy, changing and has an unclear connection to everyday behavior. We must better educate Americans about their options. If you fill a recycling bin every week, what is the impact? How about choosing a more fuel-efficient car or driving less? As Mr. Friedman and others note, the answers to our energy/environmental problems don’t have to change anyone’s way of life. We just need to act smarter and more responsibly. But the tools to determine the consequences of citizen actions also need broader distribution.

Finally, Washington needs to break another addiction — its pattern of proposing partisan energy solutions. Significant numbers of citizens identify with one party or the other. A “Democratic” plan will turn off most Republicans and vice versa. The two parties will no doubt find many areas of disagreement over the next year. A path toward energy independence should not be one of them. Policymakers have a unique opportunity to forge post-partisan change. They should harness Americans’ renewed desire for freedom from “petro-dictators,” and the promise of creating the next industrial revolution in new energy jobs, to forge a new consensus toward an energy independence. Why not come together around some fresh bipartisan solutions? Charles Krauthamer’s idea in the current issue of the Weekly Standard calling for a “net zero” energy tax (a $1 gas tax coupled with an equivalent cut in the FICA tax) could serve as the basis for a new consensus.

Addiction specialists say doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome is a sign of insanity. Mr. Obama and the Congress can break the pattern of failure with new tactics thinking bigger, providing citizens with more information about the impact of their contributions, and emphasizing American answers — as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has called them — not partisan solutions.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.

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