President Concedes Moral High Ground on Energy

“America is addicted to oil.”

With these five words in his State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush confounded steadfast allies on energy policy and emboldened his bitterest enemies. Political sages often counsel paying more attention to deeds than to words, but in this case, the President’s irresponsible rhetoric is likely to have far more damaging consequences than the minor policy changes to counter our collective “addiction” that he went on to recommend. And all for naught—for Bush, the political payoff has been nil.

The media pounced upon Bush’s speech. His “addiction” remark was the top headline in newspapers across the country and around the world and swamped coverage of the President’s extended defense of his policies on terrorism, Iraq, and electronic surveillance. The New York Times, in addition to its front page headline, featured a long editorial that found the President’s remarks “woefully insufficient.” Environmental pressure groups quickly jumped on Bush for admitting the obvious while still refusing to do anything about it. For example, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope wrote: “It was bizarre…this President seems clueless about addiction. You don’t follow up your first acknowledgement of your problem by saying that in 15 or 20 years you will cut back or seek treatment.”

Fill Your Chevy    

The Times and the environmentalists are correct in that the policies offered don’t amount to much. Bush proposed to reduce our oil imports from the Middle East by 75 percent by 2025 by increasing federal funding for research into new energy technologies by 22 percent. For automobiles, the President has decided that the fuel of the near future is going to be ethanol produced “not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks or switchgrass.”

But Bush’s goal is meaningless. The United States imports nearly two thirds of the 21 million barrels of oil it uses daily, but only 20 percent of those imports come from the Middle East. And even if the Middle East’s share of our oil imports were zero, supply disruptions there—or anywhere—will raise the price of oil for everybody, everywhere, because oil prices are set in a world market.

Second, the policies proposed are ridiculous. Over the past 35 years, the Department of Energy has spent billions of taxpayer dollars on research into the not-so-new technologies referred to in the President’s speech without much to show for it. For example, ethanol—that is, ethyl alcohol, the stuff we drink—can be made from cellulosic materials such as wood chips, but decades of research have so far failed to make production commercially viable even with the huge federal subsidies that ethanol producers receive.

Even if you agree with the goal and the policies, calling our use of oil an “addiction” is still a huge mistake. No one is addicted to oil or gasoline. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with a sudden urge to sneak out of the house and go top off my Chevy’s tank at the nearest pusher’s roadside stand. I do buy lots of gasoline because it’s the best value product that gives me the mobility to go where I need to go and do the things that I want to do.

Making us feel guilty about using energy is bad enough. Even worse is the implication that makers of petroleum products are doing something immoral by selling a product we would be better off without. Thus, President Bush has contributed significantly to the environmental Left’s goal of delegitimizing—and even demonizing—the oil industry,  thereby helping to undermine the ability of one of our most vital industries to continue to produce all the energy we need.

Five Little Words

This is not just a theoretical possibility. The President’s rhetoric has emboldened radical greens in their quest to hamstring the nation’s energy industry. It also helps their efforts to put the world on an energy diet by keeping new sources inaccessible. And it gives the greens a mighty rhetorical bludgeon.

The day after the President’s State of the Union speech, environmental pressure groups began sending out lists of all the policies that they say would be necessary to get us off our oil habit. These include much-higher corporate average fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, much-higher gasoline taxes, and windfall-profits taxes on oil company profits. And Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) immediately used the President’s speech to call for antitrust investigations of excessive oil company profits.

Although the White House also said the next day that the administration still fully supports the pro-energy policies on which Bush campaigned in the 2000 and 2004 elections, the President’s five little words had already worsened the prospects for Congress to open a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or offshore areas in the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas exploration.

The President has conceded the moral high ground to statist environmental activists who have been pushing the “oil addiction” talk for years. Now and for years to come, whenever anyone argues for policies that would help increase oil supplies and keep gasoline affordable, they will be able to reply, “Even President Bush agrees that we need to kick the oil habit.”