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'Real Men' Don't Conserve

By Sam Parry
May 15, 2001

George W. Bush, in a stunning role reversal, has stepped forward to clarify the remarks of a subordinate. Vice President Dick Cheney had sounded a little too blunt in his contempt for energy conservation.

In outlining the administration’s new energy policy, Cheney had indicated the strategy would rely heavily on increasing oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy supplies, while slow-tracking the search for alternative energy solutions and curtailing efforts to achieve significant new energy conservation.

“Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy,” the former Halliburton Co. chief executive said in a speech in Toronto.

Some analysts interpreted Cheney’s reference to “personal virtue” as a knock on Jimmy Carter and his cardigan-sweater-wearing speeches of the 1970s, a recollection that was sure to get a chuckle from Republicans of Cheney’s age group.

But the apparent dismissal of conservation as a meaningful factor in meeting U.S. energy needs came across as a bit over the top to many. So, uncharacteristically, it fell to Bush – normally the one who needs bailing out on his own words – to do some damage control.

 “I think conservation has got to be part of making sure we have got a reasonable energy policy, but what the vice president was saying was we can’t conserve our way to energy independence,” Bush said. “We have got to do both. We’ve got to conserve, but we also have to find new sources of energy.” [NYT, May 3, 2001]

Bush’s more nuanced language, however, can’t conceal the reality that this administration – dominated by oil men – is about to embark on an energy policy that seeks to ensure that Americans can buy and use the energy they want, without asking much in life-style sacrifices or worrying about larger environmental consequences.

When the Bush-Cheney team unveils its energy policy this week, Bush again is expected to speak favorably about conservation. There also might be some tax incentives for buying more fuel-efficient cars.

But the overall strategy will remain heavily weighted toward energy production, administration officials agree. The Bush-Cheney plan is even likely to propose a reduction in national conservation programs and do little to exploit technological developments that have made the promise of energy efficiency brighter than ever before.


Many experts contend that Bush’s energy policies are missing the practical – as well as the virtuous – side of energy conservation.

A day after Cheney's remarks, James E. Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading scientist on climate change, told a Senate Commerce Committee hearing that the United States has not tested the extent of potential energy savings from conservation.

“Countries, such as the United States, have made only modest efforts at conservation,” Hansen said.

Indeed, an examination of conservation efforts over the last two decades suggests that conservation could have played a much bigger role in avoiding the recent U.S. energy shortages.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. has been moving in the wrong direction on energy conservation, according to a United Nations report released last year. The report finds, “From 1983-98, the United States lost all the gains in energy conservation it achieved in 1973-83.” [UN report, “Energy and the Challenge of Sustainability,” 2000]

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, “per capita residential energy consumption rose by 10 percent, offsetting its 10 percent reduction from 1973-1983 and rising to within 2 percent of its 1973 peak,” according to the report.

In virtually every facet of life, Americans today are less efficient and more wasteful than in the 1970s. While the number of people who live in each household has decreased by one-sixth, the size of the average home has increased by a third. All things being equal, larger homes are more inefficient than smaller homes since they require more energy to heat and cool.

Cars are another problem as roads and highways continue to dominate transportation services. Americans are driving bigger, more wasteful automobiles than at any time since the 1970s. The average horsepower of vehicles grew more than 50 percent from 1982 to 1996, the UN report said. The popularity of sport utility vehicles and other light trucks also has contributed to the decline in the fuel economy of the average American vehicle.

Offices and commercial energy use, which declined 18 percent from 1973-83, rose 37 percent from 1983-97, according to the UN report. Altogether, the U.S. uses twice as much energy as Europe to achieve roughly the same standard of living.

According to the Energy Information Agency of the U.S. Energy Department, the U.S. accounted for 84 percent of the total energy consumption in North America and more than 25 percent of the total world’s energy consumption in 1999. The U.S. consumed more than Western Europe, Canada and Mexico combined and more than three times the amount of energy consumed by China, the world’s second-biggest energy consumer.

Global Warming

What do these statistics mean? For one thing, the U.S. is the world’s number-one emitter of global-warming pollution.

While representing only 4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. emits nearly a quarter of the world’s global-warming gases. As countries such as the United Kingdom, Finland and Germany have decreased their global-warming pollution since 1990, the U.S. increased its pollution by 10 percent between 1990 and 1998, according to UN data.

The U.S. lead in global-warming emissions is so great that not only does the U.S. emit more than twice as much global-warming pollution as the next biggest emitter, China, but U.S. cars and light trucks alone emit 260 million metric tons of pollutants every year, more than the total emissions of any other country in the world, except for China, Russia and Japan.

As bad as America’s energy consumption record is, it could get worse. Bush’s budget cuts funds for conservation programs while a Cheney-led task force is pressing for an energy policy weighted heavily toward energy supply.

Yet, the "real-men-don't-conserve" swagger of the Bush administration is putting the U.S. even more out of step with the world – and even with an awakening recognition among many Americans about the need for more energy efficiency.

Take automotive technology. Japan has exported into the U.S. market two cars, the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, that each get better than 60 miles to the gallon by utilizing a hybrid electric/gasoline engine. The Washington Post reports that the two Japanese hybrids are virtually sold out in the U.S.

There is a five-month waiting period to purchase the Toyota Prius, which has become something of a status symbol among progressive politicians, such as Maine’s Gov. Angus King, and Hollywood celebrities, such as Leonardo DiCaprio who owns two. [Washington Post, May 3, 2001]

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has proposed slashing about 35 percent of the funds for the public-private partnership with U.S. auto manufacturers to develop more fuel-efficient cars. This "Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles" had been championed by former Vice President Al Gore.

Industry Worries

Even some leaders in America’s auto industry are acknowledging that more can be done to create environmentally friendly cars.

During last year's campaign, Ford Motor Co.'s Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. predicted that fuel cells “will finally end the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine.” [AP, Oct. 23, 2000]

More recently, Ford formally acknowledged the seriousness of global warming and committed resources to improving fuel efficiency in its auto fleet. Ford is working on a hybrid car of its own to compete with the Toyota and Honda models.

Other industry leaders also are uneasy with the Bush administration's supply-side emphasis. Bush disappointed many utility industry executives when he broke his campaign pledge to curb global warming pollution, according to an article by Chuck Sudetic in Rolling Stone. [May 10, 2001]

Many utilities companies want to take steps to modernize their facilities and address the problem of global warming pollution, sooner rather than later, the article reported.

“We want him [Bush] to know that if he thought he was doing a favor to some big companies, there are other big companies that don’t think he did,” remarked one unnamed executive from a Midwestern utility company.

To some utility executives, the problem created by Bush’s abandoned campaign promise on cutting carbon-dioxide emissions is the uncertainty. Some see their industry's future in transitioning away from coal-burning power plants to natural gas, which emits far less global-warming pollution into the atmosphere.

Others want to get out in front of the problem to avoid a sudden shift in public sentiment when the climate becomes less stable. From this perspective, many in the utility industry are hoping to implement gradual change over time as opposed to being hit with stiffer regulations down the road.

New Hope

Some energy analysts are discouraged by the Bush-Cheney course because they see new, cleaner energy sources just over the horizon.

According to one researcher, Seth Dunn from World Watch Institute, hydrogen could replace fossil fuels as the primary energy source within a few decades. In the World Watch Institutes’ State of the World for 2001, Dunn writes, “the gradual replacement of carbon by hydrogen in energy sources is well under way.”

Driving this evolution are the advances in fuel-cell technology, he said. A fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. Instead of CO2 (carbon dioxide) emitted in the burning of fossil fuels, the “pollution” released by fuel cells is H2O – water.

While the U.S. has been a leader in developing and improving fuel-cell technologies, mostly through military and space programs, other countries are committing themselves to integrating fuel cells into their national energy plans. In February 1999, Iceland announced a joint venture with industry to create the world’s first hydrogen economy. The goal is to complete the transition between 2030 and 2040.

Choosing a different path, the Bush administration is pooh-poohing the promise of new technologies and ignoring the advice of scientists who say energy conservation can achieve major energy savings.

The New York Times reported that “scientists at the country's national laboratories have projected enormous energy savings if the government takes aggressive steps to encourage energy conservation in homes, factories, offices, appliances, cars and power plants.”

This energy conservation report issued by five national laboratories took three years to produce and was completed just before Bush took office.

The report suggests that the total energy savings could reduce "growth in electricity demand by 20 percent to 47 percent," the Times reported, "the equivalent of between 265 and 610 big 300-megawatt power plants, a steep reduction from the 1,300 new plants that the administration predicts will be needed."


So far, the Bush administration has dismissed the practicality of both major savings from conservation and from alternative fuel sources.

“We are looking for practical solutions here,” said Jeanne Lopatto, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department. “Whatever works, we're interested in. But some of these ideas have been funded over many years and they have a very small impact on energy needs.” [NYT, May 5, 2001]

In an interview with USA Today, Cheney accused his critics of wearing "blinders" about the realities of the energy problem. [USA Today, May 11-13, 2001]

But Bush again sought to color the administration's policy in greener hues. According to The Washington Post, he plans to talk about what he will call "21st century conservation," even as he pushes for a plan that will cut environmental regulations and expand the nation's energy infrastructure by clearing the way for more coal mines, oil refineries, gas pipelines and nuclear reactors. [WP, May 13, 2001]

Whatever the rhetoric, the Bush administration appears intent on returning to what it considers old, reliable energy technologies. This hard-headed realism, the Bush-Cheney team insists, must replace starry-eyed dreaming about new technologies to meet energy needs or intrusive heckling of Americans about their wasteful lifestyles.

Bush and Cheney seem to have settled on a back-to-the-future approach aimed at returning the country to a pre-1970s era before there were worries about energy shortages and global warming.

It is a strategy intended to keep American cars out of gas lines – and American presidents out of cardigan sweaters.

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