Candidates Fail Energy Independence Test

by Julie Walsh on February 29, 2008


All the presidential candidates say they’re for energy independence. So why didn’t they do something about it when they had the chance?

Hillary Clinton rails on her web site about Americans sending “billion of dollars to the Middle East for their oil.” Barack Obama warns that Middle East oil is the “lifeline of Al Qaeda.” Republican hopeful John McCain says that, if elected, his energy policy will “amount to a declaration of independence from our reliance on oil sheiks and our vulnerability to their troubled politics.”

But Clinton and Obama recently voted for a bill that can only promote dependency on oil from the Middle East . And John McCain, went AWOL, not voting on the bill at all.

A little-noticed provision of the ironically-named “Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007” that was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush last December bars the federal government from purchasing fuels whose lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions are greater than those from fuels produced from convention petroleum sources.

Before we get into the energy independence implications of this provision, it’s worth appreciating the obscurity of the provision and the fact that the media doesn’t seem to understand its import.

I only learned of the provision while thumbing through the Feb. 15 Financial Times, serendipitously noticing the egregiously mis-titled article, “US risks trade dispute with Canada on fuel.” A bit of research turned up no other media reports relating to this particular section of the bill.

The Financial Times article reported on how section 526 of the energy bill prohibits the federal government from buying oil that was produced from Canadian tar sands — a reserve that holds about two-thirds the amount of recoverable oil as compared to reserves in Saudi Arabia.

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Because it takes greenhouse gas-producing energy to extract oil from the tar sands, the article focused on the fact that the law could affect billions of dollars of trade in oil, particularly since the U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s largest single buyer of light refined petroleum.

But while I give the Financial Times credit for reporting this story, it really dropped the ball with respect to understanding it — this is yet another effort by environmentalists and their congressional henchmen to cause chaos in our energy supply.

Sure enough, it turns out that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) are already pressing the Department of Defense to comply with the provision. In a recent letter to the Secretary of Defense, Waxman and Davis asked how the DOD will ensure that the fuel it buys doesn’t come from Canadian tar sands or from domestic coal-to-liquid processing.

Waxman and Davis apparently expect the military to expend the Herculean effort of tracing the source of the fuel it purchases and then to refuse North American oil from unconventional sources apparently in favor of oil from OPEC sources like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela . How’s that for energy independence and security?

It gets worse if you’re one of those who believe that biofuels are the path to energy independence.

The plain language of section 526 would also seem to ban the federal government from purchasing biofuels like ethanol, since their lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions are greater than that of conventional petroleum.

“Turning native ecosystems into “farms” for biofuel crops causes major carbon emissions that worsen the global warming that biofuels are meant to mitigate,” researchers from the University of Minnesota and the Nature Conservancy reported in Science (Feb. 7). Another study in the same issue of Science projected that the lifecycle greenhouse gas emission from ethanol over 30 years are twice as high as from regular gasoline.

Interestingly, Reps. Waxman and Davis specifically excluded biofuels from their letter to the DOD. Not to worry, though, biofuels will likely soon become fuel-non-grata as the environmentalists have already started to demonize them.

Similar to the case of compact fluorescent lightbulbs discussed in this column last week, the New York Times editorial page this week signaled that biofuels will soon become as politically incorrect as the Canadian tar sands and domestic coal-to-liquid fuels.

The Times opined that, “Done right, ethanol could help wean the country from its dependence on foreign oil while reducing the emissions that contribute to climate change. Done wrong, ethanol could wreak havoc on the environment while increasing greenhouse gases.”

“Done right” for the Times is what’s required in the energy bill — a 20 percent reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gases as compared to gasoline. But of course this is a next-to-impossible goal since the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions for ethanol currently are projected to be 100 percent greater than for gasoline.

It will likely require nothing short of technological miracle for ethanol to achieve the energy bill’s standards in the near, or even, distant future.

Now, if the federal government is barred from bio-, tar sand, coal-to-liquid fuels, how long will it be before such a ban spreads to contractors that do business with the federal government, to states and their contractors, and then, by default, to the nation as a whole?

It’s hard to take the presidential candidates, President Bush and Congress too seriously on the energy independence issue when none of them opposed a bill that actually makes us more dependent on OPEC.

Steven Milloy publishes and He is a junk science expert, and advocate of free enterprise and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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