Energy and the environment: If not now, when?

1215609206-sc-170The House passed a 1,200 page energy and environmental bill this past week that is designed to reduce reliance on fossil fuels while increasing conservation and encouraging the use of renewable energy going forward. The vote was 219-212 with eight GOP votes in favor and 44 Democrats against.

I have to tell you this at the onset: while there is a lot of interesting discussion on the subject of global climate change, it is not something on which I personally have to rely in order to support the goals of this legislation. There are compelling environmental reasons apart from the question of global climate change. There are also reasons of national security and economics that more than support a policy direction toward significant changes in the way we that we use energy.

Relying on the market to handle this kind of thing is essentially what we’ve been doing for several decades now. It hasn’t worked. It’s my personal belief that Americans can reduce energy use per capita by a very significant amount – between a third and a half — without sacrificing a comfortable lifestyle. It’s going to take some time to turn this Titanic around, but it can and must be done.

Many of those in opposition complain that the costs are too great. My opinion, after nearly three decades in the energy business, is that the costs of inaction are probably greater. I can find plenty of things to object to in the Waxman-Markey bill, I assure you. But given the choice of an imperfect piece of legislation and doing nothing, I would prefer that we proceed aggressively on these issues sooner and sort out remedies for its shortcomings as we move forward, rather than waiting for something that everyone can agree on. Wide margins are no guarantee of the underlying wisdom or lack of unintended consequences in legislation. We only need to look as far as the authorization that brought us the Iraq War. It passed the House on a vote of 297-133 and sailed through the Senate on a 77-23 vote. Most people today know it was a huge mistake.

I penned my first article on energy conservation more than 30 years ago. We can talk all we want about why it’s important to have sound policies regarding energy and environmental protection, but unless those policies are underlined with personal economic consequences, they aren’t likely to work. What people respond to is money and it has to be their own, directly. At $1.75 a gallon, most people don’t concern themselves with choosing more energy efficient transportation and at 50 cents a therm, they don’t worry too much about their heating bills. At 6 cents for a kilowatt-hour for electricity, they don’t think too much about compact fluorescent light bulbs if they cost much more than a standard bulb. But double or triple those costs and there is a waiting list for hybrid cars, there are more people on the bus, there is a renewed interest in weatherization and there are plenty of people being a lot more fastidious about turning out the lights or considering a windmill. We might wish it was otherwise, but it isn’t. That old axiom about the medicine having to taste bad to work is sometimes true.



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