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The Stanley Foundation

World Press Review is a program of the Stanley Foundation.

From the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 8)

Alaska or Bust: Bush's Energy Plan

Gabor Miklos, Népszabadság (liberal), Budapest, Hungary,
May 22, 2001

Drillship in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska (Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior)
The George W. Bush administration already has well-established rituals. For example, the president travels around his enormous country—his trip based on an elaborate PR plan—in order to make his current program popular. He started his agenda with education, continued it with taxes, and took a little international detour to bring the problem of missile defense into the limelight. The majority of the above issues were part of the Republican election platform as well.

Energy issues, too, were highlighted in the program. However, during the election campaign, energy issues were mentioned only if the Republican candidate was forced to defend himself against Democratic accusations that he was insensitive to the question of environmental preservation. One of the most important aspirations of the Democrats was to prove that their opponent followed anti-environmental policies as governor of Texas.

The recent presidential tour had practical motivations behind it; there have been energy problems in the United States for a significant period of time. This time, however [unlike the oil crisis of the ’70s], there is no outside cause for the problems. Crude oil supplies are undisturbed, and prices on the world market are reasonable.
News from California causes some concern and worry, though. In the most populous and economically strong state of the union, there has been an energy crisis for a long time, and rolling blackouts have become frequent. No doubt the situation will only get worse in the summer air-conditioning season.

Consumers are watching price rises at their neighborhood gas pumps with increasing anxiety. The energy bill of an average American has increased 23 percent in the past three years, and over the course of a few weeks, an average 25-cent increase was experienced throughout the country. In areas such as San Francisco and Chicago, the price of the most commonly used type of gas has reached a steady price level of more than US$2.20 per gallon.

Bigger companies have already warned the public that in the main travel season—during the period following Independence Day, July 4—prices per gallon (3.8 liters) may increase to more than $3. This is a frighteningly high expense for Americans. Cheap gasoline is one of the prerequisites for the American lifestyle. The threat of the $3 price has already forced many people to reconsider their vacation plans.

Gasoline prices are worrying politicians expecting to be re-elected and presidential advisers monitoring the public. This is the reason they came out with a plan so swiftly. The concept was created by Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s team. Bush appointed him to be responsible for energy issues. The task of making the plan popular was taken over by the president himself—he visited four energy plants in four states in the course of a few days. The proposal document is 170 pages long, and according to those surrounding the president, this is the first comprehensive, long-term energy plan.

“Increasing energy production does not endanger the environment” was President Bush’s message. The program breaks with the practice of the past two and a half decades. Its main point is that instead of conservation and economizing strategies, there must be a supply sur-plus. Bush is returning to a kind of Reaganomics energy policy.

The president is planning to take some measures that have been long demanded by energy producers. The most important—and controversial—among these is allowing oil exploration in parts of the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. According to Bush, new drilling techniques do not threaten the fragile ecosystem of the tundra, and crude oil would be transported only in winter, before the snow melts. Alaska would provide an additional daily 600,000 barrels of crude oil, the same amount the United States buys from Iraq today. The industry would be allowed to build thousands of miles of gas pipes. Gas companies would be aided in building new gasoline refineries. It is the general opinion that the present rise in prices is caused by the fact that oil refineries are used at a maximum of 96-percent capacity, and strict environmental regulations make expansion difficult.

The president made an unexpected proposal, too—to free up the use of atomic energy. The development of this industry was halted in the 1980s in the United States. The reason: the accident at Three Mile Island. Since then, atomic energy has provided 20 percent of the entire electrical energy needs of the country, but the last contract for building a nuclear power plant was signed in 1974. The problem of storing radioactive nuclear waste and the used heating units is as yet unresolved. Bush’s plan would make construction of new reactors in existing power plants easier. The president cited France as a good example, where 80 percent of total energy demand is satisfied by nuclear power plants. A host of licensing procedures also would become easier under the auspices of the new energy plan. In the following years, developers of renewable energy sources would be awarded tax reductions.

Bush supports American participation in the exploration of the Caspian Sea’s oil resources and wants to persuade Latin American and Asian countries to increase their oil production. What has been left out of the document, but which everyone talks about, is the return of American oil business to the Iraqi, Iranian, and Libyan oil fields currently under embargo. Former President Jimmy Carter said in The Washington Post that the exaggerated demand for oil outlined in the Bush energy plan serves to satisfy the oil industry while harming the environment. He does not believe that there is an oil crisis, as price fluctuations are cyclical and there is a sufficient supply of crude oil.

Critics of the plan say that the president and vice president both wish to favor their former industry, thereby repaying the abundant financial support they received during the presidential campaign. The other claim: The plan does not help California, which is plagued by rolling blackouts. According to analysts, the program is fundamentally flawed, as it does not attempt to put an end to the superfluous use of energy. The gasoline consumption of American cars is increasing; there is a growing number of gasoline-consuming luxury pickups, vans, and SUVs. The Bush plan is hardly going to win the appreciation of Europeans, since it increases the American economy’s demand for raw materials and energy. It merely increases world-market prices while placing American producers at an advantage. The most important criticism is the fact that the consequences of the plan endanger the global environment: The Kyoto goals [on reducing polluting carbon-dioxide emissions] will become even more out of reach.

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