Editorial

American Way of Life: Still Not Up for Negotiation

Bush's plan to reduce US reliance on imported petroleum through the wonders of technology is dangerous magical thinking.

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 24, 2007

US President George W. Bush, flanked by Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Photo Credit: FOX News)
US President George W. Bush, flanked by Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Photo Credit: FOX News)

The Bush Dynasty's Maxim - "The American way of life is not up for negotiation" - is still in full effect in the White House.

President George W. Bush delivered his State of the Union speech last night to a joint session of the US Congress, and one of his themes was energy security.

It is in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply - and the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power - by even greater use of clean coal technology ... solar and wind energy ... and clean, safe nuclear power. [emphasis added; all ellipses in original]

First of all, there's no such thing as "clean coal technology" or "clean, safe nuclear power". Both are straightforward misnomers. Of course, technology can make both coal burning cleaner than it is today (as well as less productive), but the Bush administration has spent the past six years obstructing efforts to set stricter regulations on emissions from coal fired plants.

Nuclear power suffers from significant life-cycle pollution, radiation, and inherent risks, not to mention its poor long-term prospects as an energy source.

Reducing Oil Imports

Bush also pledged to reduce America's reliance on imported petroleum.

Let us build on the work we have done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next ten years - thereby cutting our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.

Three quarters of all the oil the US now imports from the Middle East sounds impressive, but currently the US imports very little oil from the Middle East. Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela provide 5.4 million barrels a day of petroleum. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait provide just 2.2 million barrels a day. The US itself produces around 7 million barrels a day.

Out of the 20 million barrels a day the US consumes, just ten percent comes from the Middle East, and three quarters of that is 1.5 million barrels a day.

To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory Fuels Standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 - this is nearly five times the current target. At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks - and conserve up to eight and a half billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.

President Bush seems to believe that a combination of "renewable and alternative fuels" and "moderniz[ing] fuel economy standards" will somehow magically stop climate change and offset declining oil production without requiring Americans to drive less. This sounds like wishful thinking.

If America was to convert even a significant fraction of its fuel to biodiesel and/or ethanol, it would displace millions of acres of food-producing farmland. That's assuming biodiesel can even produce a net energy return, a claim that's still in dispute, since industrial farming is already intensely hydrocarbon-intensive.

Increasing fuel economy standards has some medium-term promise (it takes a decade to roll over a nation's fleet of vehicles). However, since 1994 the Republican-controlled Congress has stridently opposed efforts to increase average fuel economy or close the loopholes that gives SUVs much looser standards.

In any case, the actual numbers are too modest to make a significant improvement. 35 billion gallons by 2017 sounds like a lot, but it's only a drop in the bucket, if you'll forgive the expression.

Bush wants the US to use 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2017. Converted to the units usually used for petroleum, that's just 1.1 billion barrels.

Assuming 2 percent growth in consumption per year (the US Energy Information Agency's estimate), the US will be using a total of 9.1 billion barrels of petroleum or equivalent by 2012.

That 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels will amount to just 12.4 percent of the total projected demand.

Bush Alt Fuel Plan
Year Alt Fuels Total Fuels Alt % to Total
Gallons (millions) Barrels (millions) Gallons (millions) Barrels (millions)
2012 17,000 548 254,851 8,221 6.7%
2017 35,000 1,129 281,376 9,077 12.4%

Real Energy Independence

The two measures with the best prospects of reducing Americans' reliance on transportation energy were notably absent from Bush's speech: building compact, mixed-use communities and investing in energy-efficient public transit.

Nowhere did Bush suggest that Americans need to rethink their love affair with sprawl and reassess whether it still makes sense to commute over 100 km between home and work.

The president who declared two wars while giving tax cuts to the rich during a recession, running the biggest deficits in US history, is not interested in asking Americans to change anything about their unsustainably polluting lifestyles.

The president who ignored everyone else on earth in deciding how to wage the war in Iraq and used part of his SOTU to defend his failed foreign policy doctrine is not ready to change his mind on the matter of energy consumption either.

His paean to technology is just magical thinking, the belief that the staggering daily inflow of energy that runs the US economy can somehow come from somewhere other than earth's multimillion-year inheritance of concentrated, buried sunlight.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his essays have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. Ryan also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on twitter.

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By David (anonymous) | Posted February 20, 2007 at 08:09:28

No surprise here. The Federal Reserve and big bankers absolutely need massive consumption to keep the fiat dollar experiment floated - that will never be challenged in presidential speeches. But you would think that by now, the phrase "reduce dependence on foreign oil" would not be written in, which people know is impossible and only serves to make the politicians looks stupid.

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