“Fossil Fuels Gang” rides again

How the oil and gas crowd got us into this mess, and how government and alternative energy can get us out

When Bill Clinton became president, alternative energy advocates hoped that he would use his bully pulpit to promote renewable technology and attack the oil and gas industries, the way Teddy Roosevelt railed against corporate monopolies to help the working class at the beginning of the last century.

After all, Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, was Mr. Environment, the man who was routinely criticized and belittled by conservatives for suggesting in his book, Earth in the Balance, that the internal combustion engine should become obsolete. Surely, he and Clinton would champion renewable technologies and stand up to the “Fossil Fuels Gang.”

Regrettably, they did very little indeed to help renewable energy cross their “bridge to the 21st century,” and as long as the price of oil remained low (under $20 per barrel), they chose to ignore the inescapable reality that the only way to ever achieve true energy independence without harming the environment is through the mass production of alternative energy systems.

But why didn’t Clinton and Gore do more to encourage the production of alternative energy while they were in office? And why didn’t the Democrats propose any meaningful federal legislation to bring down the cost of renewable technology? It was for the same reason the Republicans didn’t: Many politicians are bought and paid for by the oil and gas lobbies, including our own Gov. Gray Davis.

But what about global warming? Increased pollution? Energy shortages and price gouging? Well, yes, they admitted, these things are a problem, and one that is getting more pernicious with each passing year. Yet neither Clinton nor Gore had the cojones to go mano a mano with the Fossil Fuels Gang. As a result, the United States, led by California, faces another “energy crisis.”

But let’s back up to see how we arrived at this sorry state of affairs. In 1978, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) issued a nonpartisan report on alternative energy prepared by some of the top energy experts in the country. The report stated (among other “radical” ideas) that if a concerted effort were made by government and industry, “onsite solar energy devices could be made competitive in markets representing over 40 percent of U.S. energy demand by the mid-1980s.”

The onsite solar energy devices described in the report referred primarily to photovoltaic (PV) panels that use silicon cells to convert sunlight directly into electricity. These PV panels, which have been used on residences and businesses for decades, can easily be installed on a homeowner’s roof and have enormous advantages over traditional gas and electric systems. They are totally safe, non-polluting, noiseless and run off the sun’s energy.

Unfortunately, there was (and still is) only one major problem with PV technology: It costs more per kilowatt hour to produce than traditional energy. That’s not because the materials used in solar panels are intrinsically expensive (silicon is the second most abundant element on earth after oxygen), but because the PV industry has not yet achieved mass production.

Which is why the OTA recommended that government and industry work together by using a variety of subsidies, business tax incentives and homeowner tax credits to get the industry rolling into mass production and thereby make the technology competitive with traditional energy sources.

In fact, back in 1978, the OTA predicted that if this policy were pursued, onsite solar energy systems using PV technology would be “capable of producing electricity for residential and commercial buildings for $.04 to $.10/kwh” by the mid-1980s, and the price would continue to decrease as long as mass production continued to increase.

Inspired by this report, former President Jimmy Carter instituted a variety of government programs to help the alternative energy industry gear up for mass production. The idea was that once alternative energy became cost effective, the U.S. would have a never-ending supply of safe, clean energy, and Americans would never have to worry about shortages or price manipulations again. As a byproduct, there would be no more harm to the ozone layer, no more global warming and no more pollution. In short, no more energy crisis—ever!

All this changed, of course, when Ronald Reagan took over and his Big Oil pals convinced him to terminate almost all the programs that the Carter administration had instituted. When George Bush the Elder took over after Reagan, he followed the same policies as his predecessor. Hardly a surprise, given that his family and cronies were “oil men,” and alternative energy was anathema to their business concerns and profits.

The mainstream news media dutifully ignored the story, which isn’t surprising considering traditional energy companies like General Electric—Reagan’s one-time boss and the owner of NBC—had a vested interest to keep the alternative energy movement dead in the water.

So the mainstream media continued to repeat their corporate masters’ mantra to the American people whenever the subject came up: Sure, photovoltaic panels and electric cars are all well and good, but they just aren’t cost effective. Maybe in the future, when we’re all choking to death and living like Mad Max in a dystopian pollution dome. But not now, folks, not while the Bushes, the Cheneys and all the rest of the greedy power brokers are making a fortune selling fossil fuels to the public.

So now, California is undergoing rolling blackouts and skyrocketing energy bills. What to do? “No problemo,” say Georgie Junior and his Fossil Fuels Gang, riding out of Texas in their white hats to save the day. You can already hear them barking orders: “Aw-right, pardners, drill them new wells! Blast open them coal mines! Reopen them nuclear power plants!”

Will the American public fall for this scam again, as they did in the 1980s? They will if Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski, the powerful chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and co-sponsor of the GOP’s Energy Package National Security Act of 2000, has anything to do with it.

Already, Murkowski and his gas and oil cronies are using the same scare tactics at public hearings that were used on the American public during the Reagan years, namely: Listen up, schlubs, either you let us drill for more gas and oil wherever we damn well please or you’ll freeze to death—and maybe starve to death too!

To be fair to Murkowski, his plan does toss a few tax incentives to homeowners who install solar energy, but the main thrust of his strategy is to give the green light to the oil and gas industries—big time!—even if it means lowering pollution standards in the process and drilling in Yosemite National Park.

All of which begs the question: Will American citizens sit back and allow the Fossil Fuels Gang to dictate energy policy for the next decade at the expense of the environment? Or will we hit the streets and demand alternative energy?

Albert Camus wrote, “Men are lazy rather than cowardly and they prefer peace and death to the liberty of discerning between good and evil.” Let’s hope this time we get up off our asses.