Powering Up the Rhetoric
You may not have noticed it, but the real debate over the "energy crisis" is effectively over.
This week President Bush unveiled his plan to increase energy supplies in order to combat what he calls an "energy crisis." The problem is that there is no energy crisis. Yet, rather than pointing this out, the Democratic response has been to escalate the rhetoric and make Bush's plan look like a payoff to fossil fuel companies. The result is a non-debate designed to score political points rather than make effective policy.
The mythical energy crisis
The obvious question is what evidence there is of an energy crisis. The first page of the Bush proposal states that "America in the year 2001 faces the most serious energy shortage since the oil embargoes of the 1970s." As evidence, the report offers Energy Information Agency statistics showing rising consumption and Sandia National Laboratory statistics projecting a major energy shortfall. But, as Joseph Kahn points out in a New York Times article, the Bush team cites only the numbers from each source that suit its purpose.
Furthermore, as former President Jimmy Carter pointed out in a scathing op-ed titled "Misinformation and Scare Tactics" last Thursday, "No energy crisis exists now that equates in any way with those we faced in 1973 and 1979." Carter notes that since 1980, "America's gross national product has increased 90 percent while total energy consumption went up only 26 percent. . . . During this time, non-energy prices have risen 2 1/2 times as much as energy prices, and gasoline prices have actually declined 41 percent, in real [inflation-adjusted] terms and even including the temporary surge in the past two years." And Jerry Taylor of the libertarian Cato Institute writes in the National Review Online that "we're currently in the middle of a power-plant construction boom ... This will not only burst the electricity-price bubble but will probably produce an electricity glut in the near future."
Certainly, gasoline prices are rising and California has a problem with maintaining a stable supply of electricity, but the problem is due more to a poorly conceived deregulation bill than a lack of supply. But Bush and his advisors have taken the opportunity to claim a national energy crisis now exists. He and his aides have repeated "energy crisis" so often is it now a part of the national consciousness. The major media outlets, who at first referred to "the California energy crisis" or "What the President calls an energy crisis" now repeat the phrase without qualification or attribution.
The Democratic response: turning up the rhetoric
Given the evidence, one would think that Democrats would challenge Bush's constant pronouncements of an energy crisis. Not so. Congressional Democrats know that Bush is politically vulnerable on the environment. As a result, they have made the rather cynical calculation to avoid challenging the Bush-influenced conventional wisdom and instead whack him on environmental issues for political gain. That way they can avoid the complications of a fact-filled debate on the relatively abstruse topic of energy policy and turn public perceptions of a crisis against Bush.
An ad campaign by a group of 20 environmental organizations called the Save Our Environment Coalition features an auctioneer selling off the nation's wilderness areas and "clean air," then touts energy efficiency as the "cleanest, cheapest energy solution" - never questioning the fact that there is an energy supply problem. A policy report put out by the Democratic Leadership Council simply outlines different ways to produce energy and encourage efficiency - again, no argument over the problem. And the Democratic National Committee had launched a web site at GrandOldPetroleum.com calling Bush's policy an "energy special interest plan" and claiming that "If you're in the middle class, Bush and the Republicans want you to take the meager tax cut they're promising and turn it over to the oil and gas companies." Notably absent from the web site is any information disputing that there is actually an "energy crisis."
Prominent Democrats have carefully crafted their rhetoric to play into the perception that Bush is anti-environment and beholden to "big oil." Representative Robert Filner (D-CA) repeated the DNC talking points: "Essentially [Bush is] saying the government is a giant money laundering machine that gives you back your taxes so you can give it to the oil companies or electric companies. . . . What he's really saying is there is no tax cut, they're just giving the money away to his friends in the energy industry." And a press release from the Democratic Policy Committee on House Minority Leader Gephardt's website asserts an energy crisis while attacking Bush's plan as a special-interest giveaway:
The Bush administration has sadly used the current energy crisis as a means toward enacting a special interest agenda for their big oil friends that undermines the environment . . . The Bush administration has used the energy crisis to justify an unbalanced energy package that says YES to big oil, drilling, and big energy, and NO to consumers and the environment.
And the winner is ...
In the end it's hard to know which side is less ethical in the current energy policy war: the Bush administration, which has manufactured an energy crisis out of California's isolated problems and a steady stream of rhetoric, or Democrats who are ignoring the real issue and using the newly-declared energy crisis for their own political gain. With Democrats having already conceded the playing field to the Bush rhetoric, we'll end up with a compromise proposal: limited conservation proposals, fewer restrictions on building power plants, and energy we don't need. And we'll also have further evidence that both sides of the debate care more about advancing their political agendas through misleading rhetoric than making sound public policy.