Time for a Change?
For the past few months the debate on health care has consumed all of the physical, intellectual and emotional energy in Congress. But, there is another kind of energy that will be the focus of debate on October 27 when the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee begins hearings on climate change legislation. Senator Barbara Boxer, the committee’s chair, pledged to pass a strong energy and jobs bill “as soon as possible.”
Like health care, this is easier said than done. Powerful forces with deep pockets and a multitude of lobbyists are mobilized to water down or defeat any initiative that brings substantive change. But also like health care, strong energy legislation is crucial for the health of our planet, the security of our nation and the future of our children.
I wrote about this during my time in Cambridge when the bill was being debated in the House of Representatives, and that argument bears repeating as the effort gets kicked off in the Senate.
Start by thinking about the US utility business. The industry’s primary stakeholders are shareholders who expect a return on investment; and, the commercial and residential customers who need reliable electricity, and whose monthly bill payments provide revenue. But there are many others who have a stake in how the business is managed, ranging from environmentalists to economic developers.
The issue is not limited to the utility industry, but includes all businesses and individuals that use energy-producing fuels. This raises an overriding national security concern about the extent of our reliance on fossil fuels, much of which comes from countries that are not fond of our values or our way of life.
In looking at federal energy legislation, how do we balance the immediate business priorities of shareholder return and customer price, with the long-term issues of national security, healthy air and water, economic development and environmental sustainability?
At present, we don’t. We can’t seem to think beyond the immediate interests of our various constituencies. Politicians in power want to stay there and those out of power want to return, common good be damned; the primary concern of business is shareholder return and customer price; consumers seek to maintain and improve their existing standard of living. The first is subjected to powerful lobbying from the second, and the third targeted with partisan campaigns of fear, obfuscation and manipulation by the other two.
It seems clear to me that the United States is becoming more and more vulnerable as we increase our dependency on energy imports, thus becoming less able to deal effectively with threats from the Middle East. We are in danger of falling into energy insecurity, and of being mired in constant conflict with unstable and badly governed states.
We have an urgent need to begin a conversation about new political and economic strategies, conversations that must recognize the true cost of our energy consumption. This true cost (according to Energy Security: Toward a New Foreign Policy Status by Jan Kalicki and David Goldwyn) includes the cost of maintaining a military presence in the Gulf states, the health costs caused by carbon emissions and other pollutants, the cost of maintaining our transportation infrastructure, and the economic costs “that volatile energy prices impose on the competitiveness of US manufacturing.”
Kalicki and Goldwyn argue that “the disconnect between what Americans pay for energy and what it really costs them has lead to political deadlock… The failure to achieve basic changes has plagued Democrats and Republicans alike, both of which have feared antagonizing domestic producers and manufacturers or risking consumer retaliation at even the mention of increasing taxes. They argue, therefore, that the legislative consequence is weak, and is limited to “shortsighted discussions of industry subsidies, or continuation of the war between producers and environmentalists.”
Even though their book was written in 2005, it paints an accurate picture of the current legislative process in Washington. At least the Democrats in the House had the courage to pass out a bill, but Democratic Senators have been unwilling to confront the naysayers and tackle the issue. I am hopeful that Senator Boxer is about to change that dire situation.
Somewhere, somehow there must be a coming together of leaders who will engage the conversation as statespersons rather than partisans, seeking a balance that preserves the interest of the nation, ensures long-term environmental sustainability, protects national security and stimulates economic prosperity… and earns the US a mantle of world leadership on an issue that affects every corner of the globe.
It can be said that this is just a pipe dream, that it can never happen. But if we don’t seriously engage our energy policy we are endangering the health, economic opportunities, freedom and security of our grandchildren’s children.
It will take courage and leadership from the Democratic senators to get a substantive energy bill passed. But that is what we elected them to do, and it is time for them to focus more on serving the needs of the American people than on appeasing their colleagues on the right and rewarding the big-buck lobbyists. Please offer your comments and the bottom of the page.