Democratic Underground

Ask Auntie Pinko

March 17, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear Auntie Pinko,

We'll be having a presidential election in 2008. By then the Iraq war will be nothing more than a bad memory. So what might be the big issues in 2008? Healthcare, education, jobs. All issues on which our party is ideologically confident (even if they haven't been winning us elections).

But another big issue in 2008 might be energy. Internationally, oil production and refining are not keeping up with the ever-increasing consumption of a fast-growing China. Energy prices that are high now could be significantly higher by 2008. So what would Auntie Pinko's "National Energy Policy" encompass? Could Auntie Pinko's NEP keep us economically competitive while also making us less reliant on energy imported from unstable regions of the world?

Riverton, WY

Dear Matt,

Auntie sure hopes you are right about the war in Iraq! Being old enough to vividly remember Viet Nam, I have a hard time sharing your confidence. But I am willing to admit the possibility. Assuming you are right, and U.S. involvement in Iraq is over in 2008, I tend to agree with you about the importance of energy policy as an issue. It's an area fraught with unpleasant alternatives, and one that leaves any political party vulnerable to negative portrayals, no matter what choices are made. We should start thinking, now, about how to communicate effectively.

There are essentially four categories of energy source available in the world. Extractive (fossil) sources include coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear fuels. Kinetic sources include hydro power and wind power, as well as primitive engines powered by human or animal muscle power. Direct sources include solar and geothermal power. And, finally, organic sources include wood and chemicals such as methane and ethanol, and (mostly organic) solid waste.

Large portions of the world, including the United States, rely on an economy that requires heavy uses of energy for transportation and communications, and the rest of the world is increasingly demanding the benefits of such an economy. Complex geopolitical interactions make it almost impossible for any one country or region to make effective unilateral decisions about energy consumption. (A fact which has obviously passed the current US administration by.)

If the Democratic Party is to advocate successfully for a beneficial long-term energy policy, we must take into account the economic and cultural realities governing the lives of Americans, as well as the very real and grave environmental realities looming ever closer. And with all the will in the world to make the substantial changes required for long-term sustainability, we must be wary of the consequences of making the perfect into the enemy of the merely good, or even of the possible. A truly viable, valuable energy policy will have to be complex, and complexity is the enemy of clarity, especially in political communications.

Fortunately, there are many things we can put in the center of a policy that are both progressive and relatively palatable. There is also one key strategic goal that should be eminently "salable" to the American people: make America increasingly energy independent.

We can do this by having three main strands to our energy policy:

  • First, reduce consumption. We must promote the manufacture, use, and sale of the most energy-efficient technology, and discourage inefficient applications. Programs such as LIHEAP should be revived and strengthened to minimize the economic impact of increasing energy costs on the poor who have no other choices for reducing their consumption of "survival" energy, while programs such as low-income weatherization and furnace replacement assistance can help reduce consumption.

  • Second, we must promote the diversification of energy sources used, and the widespread adoption of new energy sources, through research into new technologies, both for production, and for use. This can be accomplished through a blend of research subsidies and rewards, and the removal of "corporate welfare" subsidies from existing inefficient and polluting technologies.

  • Third, we must promote the adaptation of existing energy production to lower its environmental impact. Again, research subsidies and rewards would be effective here, combined with disincentives for high-impact energy production, combined with incentives for low-impact production.

In order for these three goals to be effective, though, there must be another element to America's energy policy: public education and awareness. A substantial and long-term effort will be needed to make all Americans "energy literate." We must track progress toward the twin goals of environmental sustainability and energy independence, and hold ourselves accountable for that progress.

It won't be easy or glamorous. And it certainly won't be as fast as some of us would like. But if it is done right, Matt, it could transform America forever, free our economy from volatile international pressures, and assure our great-grandchildren clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and clean land to inhabit. That's worthwhile to Auntie Pinko, Matt, and thanks for your question!

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