America’s energy future belongs to the bold, and though President Bush’s plan for confronting our oil addiction is directionally correct, it is both tardy and timid. The challenges we face can only be met with an ambitious plan to break our crippling reliance on oil. This means setting tough goals, embarking swiftly on a rapid course for change, and backing rhetoric with real budgets.
Mr. Bush says we will replace 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. His advisors have clarified that he meant the replacement or reduction of 5 million barrels of oil per day. What they did not clarify was that forecasts call for 20 million barrels per day of imports to meet our 28 million barrels per day demand in 2025. Just 5 million barrels a day, Mr. President? We can, and must, do much better.
Our dependence on oil is undermining our economic stability. With oil prices skyrocketing, consumers are watching in horror as energy consumes an increasing share of the family budget. Especially for low- and fixed-income Americans, rising costs mean real pain and hard choices.
Our addiction is corroding our environment as quickly as it is emptying our pocketbooks. Rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are increasing global temperatures and escalating the risk and severity of extreme weather events, agricultural losses, water shortages and damaged ecosystems.
Just as an addiction drives the addict to skew his priorities, our oil dependence is also distorting our foreign policy in precisely those areas of the world where our leadership is needed most.
But the situation is not hopeless. Coupled with increased efficiency of vehicles, this three-step plan will boost our economy, reduce our oil consumption, and protect our environment.
First, the President should invest in the potential of American agriculture and the future of American farmers. Rural America was left out of the President's State of the Union speech, but it can't be left out of a smart renewable energy plan. The decline of rural America is stunning: over 300 family farms are shutting down every month, population declined in almost half of all rural counties in 2004, and nearly 15 percent of the remaining families live below the poverty level.
Farmers are mobilizing to be part of the solution, and many states are already out ahead of the federal government. He should invest in this momentum by providing farmers the financial tools and expertise to shift towards the production and processing of energy crops. The President should establish financial incentives to encourage farmers to grow dedicated energy crops and use the tax code to encourage co-operative ownership of refineries, which can give rural communities a real economic stake in the biofuels economy.
Second, he should transform our transportation sector from one that fuels our addiction to one that drives us toward a sustainable future. The President should build on that demand and fuel new production opportunities by supporting a mandate that all passenger vehicles must run on high blends of biofuels and gasoline – or flex fuels – within a decade. He should start immediately with a commitment that all new vehicles purchased for the civilian federal fleet should be flex fuel, hybrids or both.
At the same time, biofuel pumps need to keep pace with consumer demand and vehicle availability. The President can meet this challenge by expanding tax incentives for gas stations that install biofuel pumps, and requiring that the percentage of biofuel pumps at large gas stations reflects the percentage of flex fuel vehicles on the road.
Third, Mr. Bush is going to have to wake up and smell the climate change. Though the President and his administration appear determined to avoid the reality that we are fast approaching the tipping point on global warming, the rest of the world has noticed, is alarmed, and is acting. We should too, by enacting a national carbon cap and trade mechanism that allows farmers and drivers to benefit from the production and use of biofuels that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, the President should go global. The same oil addiction that afflicts America is fueling poverty across the developing world, with some of the world's poorest countries paying as much as 5 percent of GDP to cover oil imports. If he wants to lead at home and abroad, he'll move quickly to share with the developing world the same technologies that he offers up as the solution for America.
The President’s first opportunity to prove his commitment to kicking the oil habit was underwhelming. His budget request for biomass research and development was less than the level Congress allowed in the energy bill that became law last August. He still has time to back his rhetoric with real resources and an enduring commitment by supporting legislation already under consideration on Capitol Hill that would achieve serious oil savings.
But even if his “addicted to oil” line was just another rhetorical flourish, the cat's out of the bag. America is addicted, and now is the time for all of us to sober up.
Ana Unruh Cohen, Ph.D., is Associate Director for Environmental Policy and Gayle Smith is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.