How We Talk About Energy

Unfortunately, I have absolutely no idea how to shut down the massive oil leak currently taking place in the Gulf of Mexico. Nor do I have any ideas about how to clean it up or to mitigate the harm done by the oil already in the water. What's really needed are specifics, and political pundits are ill-positioned to offer them (my colleagues have suggested military expertise should be brought to bear). What I can say is that the politics of this disaster reflect, in part, a series of short-sighted decisions on the part of key progressive leaders.

In principle, after all, a disaster of this magnitude should be a boon to progressives and progressive policy. Think back to the gasoline price spikes of 2008, and you'll recall the right's mantra of "drill, baby, drill" and Barack Obama's thoughtful counterpoint about the need to find alternative sources of energy. The right thought it had a winning issue on this front. Had Obama stuck it out as a drilling skeptic, he'd be looking mighty vindicated today. Instead, the administration chose to offer expanded offshore drilling as a preemptive concession to the right in exchange for nothing in particular. This was supposed to shore up Obama's political standing and demonstrate his reasonableness, but in the present context, it's made it difficult to seize advantage of what could be a moment of opportunity.

Looking further back, however, the drive to embrace drilling itself reflects the problematic nature of arguments about "energy independence" or "energy security."

Pollsters and messaging gurus tasked with thinking about climate change have long noted that the public displays a limited enthusiasm for environmental arguments and a great deal of enthusiasm for nationalism. This has resulted in an upsurge in efforts to define the climate crisis as a national-security problem. There's some truth to this idea, but it's also open to misuse of various forms. Trying to secure support for a clean-energy agenda by playing to anti-Iran sentiment, for example, practically invites the counterargument that we should be drilling more oil and mining more coal at home.

The Gulf disaster reminds us that homegrown dirty energy is no better than dirty energy imported from abroad. Indeed, in many ways it's worse. Greenhouse-gas emissions affect the whole world, but the fossil fuels that are its leading cause have any number of deleterious effects on the environment. Many of these are pretty localized. Last week, Pam Casey reported for the West Virginia State Journal that "mountaintop mining and extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale have placed two West Virginia rivers, the Gauley and the Monongahela, on the 2010 list of most endangered rivers." And, of course, sometimes wells go badly awry, leaving first your ocean and then your coastline coated in oil, killing wildlife, ruining beaches and fisheries, and costing billions to clean.

Once you consider the costs of extraction, depending on energy supplies from faraway sounds like a pretty good idea. Let someone else poison his country while you get to enjoy the finished products someplace not ruined by fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, the benefits of energy independence are actually a bit hard to find. The price of commodities is determined on a global marketplace regardless of how close you happen to be to the source. What's more, fossil-fuel exporters are actually much more dependent on global trade than are their customers. If Saudi Arabia decided to stop selling oil, for example, that would be very bad for the United States but actually much worse for Saudi Arabia, which would be faced with bankruptcy and economic collapse.

That said, I don't begrudge people for engaging in the occasional spat of misleading rhetoric. Practical politics isn't a seminar discussion -- sometimes to motivate people to do the right, effective leaders say things that don?t hold up to logical scrutiny. But from the news this week -- from the Gulf oil slick to Lindsey Graham bailing from his own climate bill -- it's clear that we've reached something of a political dead end on climate issues. Progressives are going to have to start over again from scratch with our arguments. And there are actually some real signs that the public does support action to curb climate change; it's just confused about what kinds of remedies would actually work. The public looks kindly on various types of subsidies and mandates but opposes the sort of carbon caps or prices that would be most effective.

They say that desperate times call for desperate measures, so maybe it?s time to try the truth: America desperately needs to start consuming less coal and oil -- the place of origin is completely irrelevant.

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