Science & Tech

Energy policies: ‘Forty-year failure’

5 min read

Hofmeister describes conflict between politics and energy independence

In 1973, four weeks after the Arab oil embargo, President Richard Nixon went on national television to talk about an energy crisis that had been mounting for two years. He asked Americans to turn off their Christmas lights.

In a gesture of greater substance, Nixon also pledged that within seven years the United States would be independent of foreign oil.

Since then, eight presidents and 18 congresses have aimed to deliver on this 1973 promise. In the last four years alone, four ambitious energy bills were signed into law.

Yet Americans, more than ever, are still at the mercy of foreign oil. Nearly 70 percent of oil supplies are imported today, up from 30 percent in the Nixon era.

What happened?

John Hofmeister, the retired president of Shell Oil Co., offered a few answers — and solutions — to an audience this week (April 1) at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. The venue, devoted to topical talks, is sponsored by the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

Hofmeister, founder and CEO of the new education group Citizens for Affordable Energy, acknowledged America’s 40-year failure along the road to energy independence. He sketched in some broad answers first.

The first relates to what he called “political time” — the two-year or four-year cycles of action permitted by the election process.

Then there is “energy time, which transpires in decades,” said Hofmeister. “It takes decades to imagine, to plan, to engineer, to permit, to build, to construct, to operate, and then ultimately decommission a major energy project — 30 to 40 years, and sometimes even longer.”

A long time scale like that ensures certainty for investors, he said. “When there is uncertainty, they don’t invest.”

Hofmeister offered the example of wind power — a promising renewable energy resource held back for a decade. Why? Because Congress has capped wind power tax credits to just two years, he said, or sometimes to just one.

“Political time and energy time are contradictory,” said Hofmeister. “They are water and oil.”

Ideology inflames the problem. Federal policy debates are often just shouting matches between two extremes, he said — “the drill-baby-drill crowd” battling those who want an immediate zero-carbon energy system.

A tangle of federal bureaucracies is no help either, said Hofmeister: In the executive branch alone, 13 separate agencies (plus the White House) oversee energy usage.

Add to that dozens of powerful Congressional committees with energy oversight, and an independent judiciary whose dockets are crowded with energy-related lawsuits challenging any project. “If you’re a major integrated oil company,” said Hofmeister, “you’re in court all the time.”

The energy industry can’t solve the energy independence problem either, he said. It is just as fragmented and competitive as the federal government.

Citizens for Affordable Energy could help, by applying grassroots pressure on a political model that doesn’t work, said Hofmeister. “Something has to be done outside the system.”

That something can be summed up in six action steps, he said.

Get more energy from every available source — coal, oil, nuclear, wind, solar, and the rest. Energy demand is expected to at least double by the year 2030. “There is no single approach that will solve our energy problem” in the short run, said Hofmeister, a champion of hydrogen fuel systems. “We need it all.”

Why we need it is evident in the sheer volume of energy we use now, he said: Americans burn a train car load of coal every second. In that same second, we use 10,000 gallons of oil. And every day we consume 60 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Stacked up in a tower, those cubic feet would reach to the moon and back 25 times.

A second solution? Make “big, hard decisions” on new technologies that will drive energy efficiency, said Hofmeister. At present, U.S. transportation needs depend on a technology that is 100 years old and at best 20 percent efficient — the internal combustion engine.

Its lighting needs are still largely met by incandescent light bulbs, a 19th century product that uses 97 percent of its energy for heat and only 3 percent for light. “We can do better,” he said.

For a third solution, said Hofmeister, manage gaseous wastes — just like we’ve got a technical grip on managing solid and liquid wastes. “We’re putting that trash into the atmosphere every day,” he said, “and it’s growing.”

An emissions cap-and-trade system would encourage innovation, but a carbon tax — “carrying a box of rocks around on your back,” said Hofmeister — would not.

Another solution, he said is a “new, better, smarter infrastructure” — that is, ways to make, transport, and distribute energy. (Hofmeister admitted there were impediments, including the lack of federal jurisdiction over power transmission corridors.)

The fifth solution is edgy, tricky, and politically fraught, he said: Create a federal energy resources board, an independent federal agency “in the manner in which we’ve managed money in the last 95 years.”

This federal-like agency would be run by a board whose members are appointed by the president for seven-year terms that overlap election cycles.

The board — a diversity of experts from consumer, environment, and energy interests — would manage the U.S. energy supply, carbon footprint, and infrastructure.

And the sixth solution? It could be a national grassroots movement on energy issues, propelled by the same collective will, anger, and sense of social justice that drove civil rights reform and stopped unwanted wars, including Vietnam.

“This battle over the air we breathe,” said Hofmeister, his voice rising … “enough is enough.”