Sunday, September 21, 2008

Review: A Declaration of Energy Independence

Jay Hakes, A Declaration of Energy Independence: How Freedom from Foreign Oil Can Improve National Security, Our Economy, and the Environment

Jay Hakes was the Head of the Energy Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton for eight years and currently oversees the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

Hakes begins by recounting the last 40 years of energy policy, from oil embargoes, to President Carter's plan to get America off of foreign oil to (as Hakes portrays it) the failure to follow up on the aforementioned plan by Carter's presidential successors. Basically, throughout this recent-history lesson, Hakes portrays the plans laid out by Carter (and some of those by President Ford) as a missed opportunity, one that should have been seized upon but wasn't. This recounting is interesting and thorough and, a quibble here or there aside, contains valuable background for the proposals that Hakes offers in the second part of the book.

As Hakes explains, though, there is a problem with implementing necessarily long-term energy plans:
There are several valuable lessons from this forgotten story of regaining energy independence. First, there are no quick fixes, byt there are fixes. It generally takes at least two to six years for positive effects of federal legislation to have much impact (and longer for investments in research and development). Any politician who promises immediate results is porbably going to make things worse.

Second, there are no silver bullets for winning energy independence, but there is plenty of silver buckshot. Some trumpeted solutions to the energy crisis, such as making liquid transportation fuels from coal, played no role at all. Even the larges contributors could not turn around a major trend by themselves. Those who want to wage "the moral equivalent of war" must attack on many fronts.

There is one problem with winning a war. People soon want to settle back to life as usual, and complacency sets in. After losing energy independence in 1970, it took America a dozen years to regain it. It would take 17 years to lose it.
But Hakes proceeds to give it a try, though only after taking the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations to task for letting Carter's plans slip away. However, Hakes thinks the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 "will likely be seen as an important turning point and the end of a 26-year era of energy complacency." Well, maybe we can hope, but Hakes also explains that there are some partisan blinders that need to be removed before any hope of progress can realistically be felt.

On the Left, Hakes explains, many "rule out most sources of energy." Coal, oil, nuclear, windmills and dams all have been rhetorically shot down by the environmental left. And while acute arguments against each form of energy may "make sense" on their own, "In combination," Hakes writes, "they create an almost impossible situation." He states that "the ideology of the Left often castigates any increases in energy prices" believing that big business is gouging consumers. Hakes believes that "price increases are often best explained by the normal fluctuations of commodity markets or added costs." In summary, Hakes writes of the Left that "Both the insistence that energy prices should never rise and the demonization of major corporations often provide excuses for avoiding tough decisions about energy."

On the Right, Hakes explains that ideologues "tend to abhor any government action that raises energy prices or slows economic growth." Further, "this...shut the door on most new government measures to protect the environment or national security interests." He also accuses the Right of "sloppy thinking about free markets" when they don't "recognize the external costs of fossil fuels--the costs to national security, the economy, and the environment not included in retail prices." He also accuses conservatives of selective memory in that they overstate the effect that deregulation and more effective distribution had on energy prices without recognizing the government policies, most put in place by President Carter, "that promoted conservation and fuel-shifting away from oil."

Hakes also thinks the Right "tend to dismiss ideas they do not like with the simple assertion they were advance by someone they do not like." He offers Al Gore as an object lesson, but here he manifestly overreaches and is guilty of a reductionism all his own. The arguments against Al Gore and his Inconvenient Truth are much deeper than personal animosity. But perhaps Hakes is dismissing them because he doesn't like many on the ideological Right?

The last third of the book contains a series of chapters devoted to various solutions: we should increase our emergency reserves, develop the "car of the future", alternative fuels, "an electric future", implement acceptable energy taxes, "make energy conservation a patriotic duty" and "throw some Hail Marys." All and all, Hakes has several good ideas, many of which have been discussed by others and some of which are likely to be acted upon.

He concludes with an exhortation for both politicians and voters to take his suggestions (or others) and implement them fully. Yet, the same problem remains: even if we begin to implement these policies--and they begin to work--will we be able to keep our collective eyes on the ball long enough to see it all through? Hakes thinks we can if we accept it as a patriotic duty. That all depends on exactly how much we're asked to do for our country.

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