Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

Make Energy, Not War

by David Corn

Claiming to be practical, Cheney said the nation had no choice
Tax cuts for the rich, fuzzy-science missile defense, environmental standard rollbacks, assaults on workplace safety, a revival of nuclear power, eliminating salmonella testing of meat used for school lunches (an initiative that had to be quickly rescinded) -- it's a bad 1980s flashback, Ronald Reagan all over again. What's next: ketchup as a vegetable? Forget Dick Cheney -- is Nancy Reagan calling the shots? Is Miami Vice back on the air?

The two-CEOs-for-the-price-of-one, Bush/Cheney co-presidency produced a pair of major policy blunders recently, when the number-one guy delivered a speech on national missile defense, and the number-one-and-a-half guy made remarks about the administration's energy policy.

Trying to be bold, Bush proclaimed the age of nuclear deterrence dead and vowed to plow ahead with the construction and deployment of an anti-missile system that can shoot down a limited number of nuclear missiles heading toward the United States and its allies.

Claiming to be practical, Cheney said the nation had no choice but to drill for oil in Alaska, build new nuclear plants and emphasize production (more coal, more oil, more natural gas) over conservation and renewable energy sources.

It was easy to debunk each address.

Bush is selling a pig in a poke by pushing a product that has not been proven to work. (In fact, tests keep showing it's a dud.) A NMD system is not even desired by those Bush claims it will serve, for most US allies have noted they do not believe there is much of a threat of rogue-state missiles. After all, a rogue-state leader determined to nuke a US city -- and bring upon his own land annihilation -- could evade a missile shield by Fedexing a bomb. Constructing a defense system that many physicists maintain cannot work sufficiently could well encourage China (which now maintains about 20 nuclear missiles capable of striking the United States) to beef up its nuclear arsenal. And though Bush has refused to discuss the cost of his pie-in-the-sky project, estimates range from a budget-busting $60 billion to a really budget-busting $200 billion.

As for Cheney's energy comments, they reeked of disingenuousness. He declared nuclear power "the cleanest method of power generation we know," because it produces no greenhouse gasses. But what about all that nuclear waste that remains deadly for tens of thousands of years? In interviews, he has skated past any substantial discussion of what to do with all this radioactive poison.

Cheney, who ran the oil-services company Halliburton, also repeated the misleading factoid that drilling in the Alaska wilderness would occur only on 2000 acres -- "one-fifth the size of Dulles airport." He did not say these acres are not contiguous and are spread out across the most sensitive parts of the wilderness area, and that these patches would be linked together by over 100 miles of pipeline and drilling infrastructure.

It does not take a whole lot of vision to craft a renewable energy initiative
Keeping with the Bush line that the nation is in the midst of an energy-supply crisis (as opposed to an excessive-use crisis), Cheney asserted that fossil fuels would have to be the primary energy resources for "years down the road" and that " not a sufficient basis -- all by itself -- for a sound, comprehensive policy." But no conservation advocates claim that conservation all by itself is the only answer, and Cheney failed to mention that one reason why fossil fuels will remain the centerpiece of US energy policy "for years" is because the Bush administration is slashing research and development for alternative energy technologies and energy efficiency.

Days after Cheney's speech -- which drew much criticism from conservation and renewable energy advocates -- the White House leaked word that the forthcoming report of its energy task force would be more supportive of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies than speech. Still, the Bush budget shortchanged these areas.

Bush was posing as a visionary. Cheney was posing as a hard-headed realist. The two should have traded scripts. The nation would be better off if the notion of shooting down a nuclear missile launched by a suicidal overseas leader was submitted to sober-minded analysis, and if the energy needs of the country were addressed with a dash of imagination and daring.

Let's assume the money Bush wants to waste on missile defense were to be applied to the development of renewable energy technologies. That $60 - 200 billion would go a long way toward freeing the nation from fossil fuels and boosting energy independence (a national security concern). In 1992, several Department of Energy labs conducted a study that concluded that if the United States spent $160 million a year over twenty years on research and development for renewable energy -- such as solar, wind, geothermal and biomass technologies -- by 2030 clean energy could provide one-half of the energy used by the United States in 1989. The cost of such an initiative -- several billion dollars -- would be a small fraction of Bush's missile-defense budget.

A 1991 electric utilities industry study found that the electricity used in the United States could be cut by 55 percent if a couple of billion dollars a year were invested in enhanced efficiency. Using that study, energy expert Amory Lovins calculates that $56 billion spent over twenty years could produce such results. "Before the California electricity prices went sky-high," Lovins notes, "the total cost of electricity in the United States was $210 - 220 billion. You could spend $4.5 billion a year -- about the cost of one nuclear power plant -- and reach that 55 percent figure in 20 years or so."

Actually, it does not take a whole lot of vision to craft a renewable energy initiative. Production tax credits could be offered to alternative energy suppliers. There would be extensive subsidies for the installation of solar panels on residential homes and office buildings. (The municipal utility in Sacramento has a successful program that "buys down" the price of solar panels so they end up costing homeowners as much as conventional power.) Or imagine a government program that would use several billion dollars to simply hand out solar panels to low-income Americans. Donald Aitken, former chairman of the American Solar Energy Society, estimates that it would cost $1 billion to solarize 100,000 homes. For $200 billion, the nation could put panels on more than one-quarter of the nation's residences.

Or billions could be used to quicken the development of hydrogen fuel cells -- a clean form of energy. In a fuel cell, hydrogen atoms brush up against a membrane, the electrons bounce off and produce electric current -- which can run a car, heat a home -- while the protons pass through and join with air on the other side to produce water as a waste product. There's little market or infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cells at the moment. A couple of cities have buses running on clean fuel cells -- thus demonstrating this technology is much closer to reality than anti-missile technology.

"There's no question," says Aitken, "that we could have a renewable energy program and reach the target of having renewables generate 50 percent of our energy supply by 2030. If we do everything we need to do, I can't imagine it's even $60 billion." But, he adds, "we need to disabuse people of the notion that the only way to make this happen is by spending large amounts of money. By changing building codes and providing incentives to builders, we could encourage the use of passive designs that save up to 50 percent of the energy used by houses and buildings."

Germany is not the only nation kicking our backside in the renewable energy race
It's easy and rather convenient for oil-addicts like Cheney to dismiss clean-and-renewable-energy advocates like Aitken and Lovins as utopians and to argue for reliance upon the conventional energy market. But the market, as it exists, does not take into account the environmental degradation caused by the use of fossil fuels or future supply problems. (By the way, without numerous government subsidies that skew market forces, nuclear energy would not be cost-competitive.)

Other industrial countries realize they cannot depend on the market alone to yield a sensible energy system. Germany has instituted a ten-year program -- at $1 billion a year -- to double its use of renewable energy sources. By 2010, it aims to have alternative energy comprise 10 percent of its total energy supply. And this is part of a 50-year plan to push that figure to 58 percent and to dramatically increase energy efficiency. Germany's goal is an economy in 2060 that is twice the current size and running on half the energy the nation now uses. Please, no jokes about the German knack for planning. But why is such a vision beyond Bush, the failed oil-man?

Denmark is the leading wind producer in the world. Its wind industry produces more jobs than its fishing and shipbuilding industries. Japan has pulled ahead of the United States in photovoltaic cells, even though most of that technology was invented in the United States. By the year 2010, the European Union expects renewable energy to account for 22 percent of the energy supply of its nations. The United States is on the losing side of a clean-energy gap.

Instead of looking to the heavens for a shield, Bush ought to be gazing upward for energy -- as well as looking at wind, crops, hydrogen, and the like. John Pike, a specialist in space weapons, knocked Bush's NMD policy as one that promotes "systems that don't work to deal with threats that don't exist." On the energy front, Bush and Cheney could turn to alternative energy technologies that do work (but that need extra-market support to reach cost-competitive status) to deal with problems that do exist.

Think of the choice. Spend a hundred billion dollars or more on iffy technology of questionable need? Or use it on more proven technologies that can guide the nation to the post-fossil-fuels era (which has to happen eventually)? For further perspective, consider this: a $60 billion clean-energy/conservation initiative would equal less than one-tenth of the money Bush has proposed giving to America's wealthiest via tax cuts. More yachts or a cleaner and more efficient energy? Well, we can certainly guess what Reagan would say.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor May 5, 2001 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.