WASHINGTON — You think gasoline is too expensive? Are you annoyed by the escalating price at the pump?
If so, you’ve joined legions of Americans, myself included, who have become accustomed to a lifestyle of easy and seemingly painless energy consumption. We believe that we have a God-given right to our fuel-hogging SUVs, two or three refrigerators per household (one in the garage for beer and grocery surplus) and old-fashioned light bulbs that generate as much heat as light. Isn’t there something in the Constitution that guarantees our right to most of the world’s energy resources?
You’d certainly think so to listen to the complaints that escalate right along with the price per barrel of petroleum. But the simple fact is that our energy consumption is a lot more costly than we acknowledge — measured not just in ghastly environmental disasters but also in the blood spilled by our soldiers.
A confluence of awful events — the slaughter of protestors in the Middle East and a nuclear catastrophe in Japan — ought to serve as a teaching moment, an opportunity to remind Americans that there is a steep price to be paid for our profligate use of energy sources. Instead, we’ve seen the usual petty politics and finger-pointing, a reflexive avoidance of assessing our old habits and attempting to change them.
President Obama, for his part, is sticking with an energy plan that calls not only for new sources, such as wind and solar power, but also broader use of nuclear plants. He is among many progressives who have lately endorsed nuclear power as an alternative to planet-warming fuels such as coal, used in many utility plants.
But the fragile consensus between conservatives who clamor for nuclear power and environmentalists who hate coal may not matter, even if it survives the Japanese crisis. As Time magazine writer Michael Grunwald notes, nuclear power plants are outrageously expensive to build and even more expensive to insure.
“Since 2008, proposed reactors have been quietly scrapped or suspended in at least nine states — not by safety concerns or hippie sit-ins but by financial realities. Other projects have been delayed as cost estimates have tripled toward $10 billion a reactor. . ..” Grunwald writes. So much for a cheap source of electricity.
Despite that, a group of Republicans wants to repeal the Bush-era mandate to retire incandescent light bulbs and switch to technologies that would use about 30 percent less energy and could save consumers as much as $40 billion in energy and related costs over the next two decades. U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), leader of the dim bulbs, says it’s about “personal freedom.”
Our sense of entitlement about our electricity-fueled gadgets is rivaled only by our conviction that we have an all-American right to hit the highway whenever we choose. But that freedom, too, is bought at a steep price — a foreign policy that is mired in the Middle East. There are other reasons for our forays there, of course, but access to petroleum has always been a prime motivator.
That’s why the Obama administration steps softly around the slaughter of protestors in oil-rich Bahrain, whose monarchy is using U.S.-supplied hardware and the assistance of Saudi Arabia to stifle demonstrators seeking a more open and democratic government. How much can we castigate those who supply the fuel we crave? Does a junkie lambast his dealer?
As for those, like Sarah Palin, who insist that we drill here, it’s a seductive cry that hardly solves the problem. Much of the oil in and around the continental United States is difficult to get to. That’s why the Deepwater Horizon was drilling a mile down — a dangerous depth. Besides, companies like BP are multi-nationals, under no obligation to sell us oil cheaply just because they found it here.
It ought to be abundantly clear that what the nation needs is an intervention, a tough-love strategy that forces us to admit that we have to change our ways. But few politicians are brave enough to call for a steep gas tax. They know a nation of junkies isn’t ready to listen.