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Make energy, not war


by David Corn

Tax cuts for the rich, fuzzy-science missile defense, environmental standard rollbacks, assaults on workplace safety, a revival of nuclear power, eliminating salmonella testing of meat used for school lunches (an initiative that had to be quickly rescinded) -- it's a bad 1980s flashback, Ronald Reagan all over again. What's next: ketchup as a vegetable? Forget Dick Cheney -- is Nancy Reagan calling the shots?

The two-CEOs-for-the-price-of-one, Bush/Cheney co-presidency produced a pair of major policy blunders recently, when the No. 1 guy delivered a speech on national missile defense, and the number-one-and-a-half guy made remarks about the administration's energy policy.

Trying to be bold, Bush proclaimed the age of nuclear deterrence dead and vowed to plow ahead with the construction and deployment of an anti-missile system that can shoot down a limited number of nuclear missiles heading toward the United States and its allies.

Claiming to be practical, Cheney said the nation had no choice but to drill for oil in Alaska, build new nuclear plants and emphasize production (more coal, more oil, more natural gas) over conservation and renewable energy sources.

It was easy to debunk each address.

Bush is selling a pig in a poke by pushing a product that has not been proven to work. (In fact, tests keep showing it's a dud.) A NMD system is not even desired by those Bush claims it will serve, for most U.S. allies have noted they do not believe there is much of a threat of rogue-state missiles. After all, a rogue-state leader determined to nuke a U.S. city -- and bring upon his own land annihilation -- could evade a missile shield by Fedexing a bomb. Constructing a defense system that many physicists maintain cannot work sufficiently could well encourage China (which now maintains about 20 nuclear missiles capable of striking the United States) to beef up its nuclear arsenal. And though Bush has refused to discuss the cost of his pie-in-the-sky project, estimates range from a budget-busting $60 billion to a really budget-busting $200 billion.

As for Cheney's energy comments, they reeked of disingenuousness. He declared nuclear power "the cleanest method of power generation we know," because it produces no greenhouse gases. But what about all that nuclear waste that remains deadly for tens of thousands of years? In interviews, he has skated past any substantial discussion of what to do with all this radioactive poison.

Keeping with the Bush line that the nation is in the midst of an energy-supply crisis (as opposed to an excessive-use crisis), Cheney asserted that fossil fuels would have to be the primary energy resources for "years down the road" and that "conservation... is not a sufficient basis -- all by itself -- for a sound, comprehensive policy." But no conservation advocates claim that conservation all by itself is the only answer, and Cheney failed to mention that one reason why fossil fuels will remain the centerpiece of U.S. energy policy "for years" is because the Bush administration is slashing research and development for alternative energy technologies and energy efficiency.

Bush was posing as a visionary. Cheney was posing as a hard-headed realist. The two should have traded scripts. The nation would be better off if the notion of shooting down a nuclear missile launched by a suicidal overseas leader was submitted to sober-minded analysis, and if the energy needs of the country were addressed with a dash of imagination and daring.

Let's assume the money Bush wants to waste on missile defense were to be applied to the development of renewable energy technologies. That $60 billion to $200 billion would go a long way toward freeing the nation from fossil fuels and boosting energy independence (a national security concern). In 1992, several Department of Energy labs conducted a study that concluded that if the United States spent $160 million a year over 20 years on research and development for renewable energy -- such as solar, wind, geothermal and biomass technologies -- by 2030 clean energy could provide one-half of the energy used by the United States in 1989. The cost of such an initiative -- several billion dollars -- would be a small fraction of Bush's missile-defense budget.

A 1991 electric utilities industry study found that the electricity used in the United States could be cut by 55 percent if a couple of billion dollars a year were invested in enhanced efficiency. Using that study, energy expert Amory Lovins calculates that $56 billion spent over 20 years could produce such results.

Actually, it does not take a whole lot of vision to craft a renewable energy initiative. Production tax credits could be offered to alternative energy suppliers. There would be extensive subsidies for the installation of solar panels on residential homes and office buildings. Or imagine a government program that would use several billion dollars to simply hand out solar panels to low-income Americans. Donald Aitken, former chairman of the American Solar Energy Society, estimates that it would cost $1 billion to solarize 100,000 homes. For $200 billion, the nation could put panels on more than one-quarter of the nation's residences.

"There's no question," says Aitken, "that we could have a renewable energy program and reach the target of having renewables generate 50 percent of our energy supply by 2030. If we do everything we need to do, I can't imagine it's even $60 billion." But, he adds, "we need to disabuse people of the notion that the only way to make this happen is by spending large amounts of money. By changing building codes and providing incentives to builders, we could encourage the use of passive designs that save up to 50 percent of the energy used by houses and buildings."

It's easy and rather convenient for oil-addicts like Cheney to dismiss clean-and-renewable-energy advocates like Aitken and Lovins as utopians and to argue for reliance upon the conventional energy market. But the market, as it exists, does not take into account the environmental degradation caused by the use of fossil fuels or future supply problems.

Instead of looking to the heavens for a shield, Bush ought to be gazing upward for energy -- as well as looking at wind, crops, hydrogen and the like. John Pike, a specialist in space weapons, knocked Bush's NMD policy as one that promotes "systems that don't work to deal with threats that don't exist." On the energy front, Bush and Cheney could turn to alternative energy technologies that do work (but that need extra-market support to reach cost-competitive status) to deal with problems that do exist.

Think of the choice. Spend a hundred billion dollars or more on iffy technology of questionable need? Or use it on more proven technologies that can guide the nation to the post-fossil-fuels era (which has to happen eventually)? For further perspective, consider this: A $60 billion clean-energy/conservation initiative would equal less than one-tenth of the money Bush has proposed giving to America's wealthiest via tax cuts. More yachts or a cleaner and more efficient energy? Well, we can certainly guess what Reagan would say.