Emphasize Conservation, Alternative Fuels

Of the many lessons to be learned from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, none is perhaps more important over the long run than the obvious need for a new national energy strategy.

The existing strategy announced with great fanfare by President Bush in May 2001 has now collapsed. It’s been swept away like so many under-strength dikes around New Orleans. As a result, every American will face the pain of suddenly much higher gasoline prices and home heating costs, along with other economic liabilities. As we strive to rebuild New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities, we must also construct a new energy plan that will better serve our needs.

Bush’s 2001 plan has one overriding goal: to increase the supply and consumption of petroleum through any means necessary. “The goals of this strategy are clear: to ensure a steady supply of affordable energy for America’s homes and businesses and industries,” Bush intoned on May 17, 2001.

To achieve this objective, the administration called for increased oil drilling in the U.S., particularly in the Gulf of Mexico, the only area of the nation believed capable of supplying increased yields in the years ahead (given the anticipated decline in output from most other fields).

That the Gulf is a major magnet for hurricanes doesn’t appear to have figured in this calculation.

To further boost supply, the administration has favored oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and increased reliance on imports from the Middle East, Africa, and the Caspian Sea basin. So far, Congress has refused to allow drilling on ANWR, so our reliance on imported supplies has continued to soar.

Imports now account for nearly 60 percent of our total supply.

Because political conditions in many of the producing areas have been consistently turbulent, to say the least, output in these countries has been inadequate to meet global needs, hence the surge in gasoline prices seen before the Gulf Coast devastation.

While favoring increased oil drilling at home and greater reliance on imports from abroad, the administration plan has done virtually nothing to promote conservation in energy use by the American people. As Vice President Dick Cheney sneered in a meeting with reporters:

“Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”

If anything, the administration’s plan invited increased profligacy.

The disgracefully low fuel-efficiency standards imposed on SUVs and other “light trucks” were left untouched, and many super gas-guzzlers, like the Hummer, were exempted from such standards altogether.

Astonishingly, the most recent efficiency standards proposed by the White House announced just one week before Katrina struck will further encourage the production and sale of super guzzlers.

As a result of this lack of effort to constrain demand, America’s consumption of petroleum has risen steadily during the administration’s term in office. It reached a record of 20.7 million barrels per day in early 2005. And this at a time when global oil output has begun to show signs of a protracted slowdown.

The causes of this slowdown are many: declining output in many older fields; a failure to discover any large new fields; chronic instability in the Middle East and other key producing regions. But one thing is clear: Nothing can be done, certainly not in the short run, and perhaps never to reverse this decline. There is only one sure way out of this trap: increased energy conservation. And that is precisely the path rejected by the White House.

Now, in Katrina’s wake, we have to start over. The U.S. needs a new energy strategy that emphasizes conservation and the alternative fuels. As a first step, Congress must impose substantially higher minimum fuel-efficiency requirements for all vehicles, but especially for SUVs and light trucks (which now enjoy much lower requirements than ordinary cars). Other measures, like reduced speed limits and bigger incentives for driving hybrids and using public transit, should also be considered.

Most important, we need a long-term strategy that weans us off fossil fuels like oil and natural gas and moves us toward the fuels of the future whether derived from biomass (ethanol), hydrogen, or some other potential source. Aside from rebuilding New Orleans, Biloxi and other flattened cities, the adoption of such a strategy is the most important and valuable thing we can do in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Michael T. Klare is a Foreign Policy In Focus scholar, a professor of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire College, and the author of “Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum” (Metropolitan Books, 2004).