Sunday, December 02, 2007

Democrats Reach Energy Deal in House

House Democrats announced yesterday that they have reached a compromise deal on an energy bill that may be sufficient to both hurdle a threatened Republican filibuster and also avoid a potential Bush veto. The deal extends certain fuel efficiency requirements for SUVs and pickup trucks out to 2020 while requiring non-public electric utilities to produce some 15% of their energy from renewable sources. As part of the compromise, the deal appears to drop plans to impose $16 billion in taxes on the oil industry. The revenue from those taxes would have been earmarked for research into renewable energy sources and improved conservation. (H. JOSEF HEBERT, AP: Deal Reached to Boost Gas Mileage.)

While I disagree with the solutions proposed in this energy bill compromise, I do give the Democrats credit for at least attempting to address the problem. Solutions are somewhat lacking in Congress these days, so any legislation that attempts to solve the energy issue should be welcome for debate on the floor. My disagreement with this particular piece of legislation has to do, not with any plans to impose restrictions on the auto industry, but with my opposition to agriculture based energy sources (e.g. ethanol) due to the potential impact on our food supply and food costs.

The legislation does correctly target SUVs and pickup trucks. Thanks in no small part to auto industry marketing campaigns over the last decade, Americans have been brainwashed to believe that bigger means safer. As a result, parking lots are filled with SUVs and mini-vans now being used by people in their daily commute to work. With the bigger is safer mentality has come the need for more horsepower. My last two cars (a Toyota Camry and a Hyundai Sonata respectively) have been 6-cylinder cars, and neither of them would win any gas mileage competitions. My Sonata is the worst of the bunch, getting less than 18 MPG in stop-and-go driving.

So first and foremost, I believe we need to address that problem. The solution really isn't improving the gas mileage for those guzzlers, the solution is to get the beasts off the road entirely. Owners of SUVs, mini-vans, and 6-cylinder cars (such as myself) should be penalized for it. A tax credit for owning a fuel efficient car coupled with a tax penalty for not owning one would go much further towards promoting energy conservation than mere legislation will. This is especially true when you consider the wording in that legislation that ties fuel efficiency to an entire fleet average, and not to the individual car.

What we must also address is our overall transportation infrastructure. Simply put, there are too many cars on the road in and around our major cities. Virtually all of that 4-wheel transportation is unnecessary, or at least would be unnecessary if we had a viable inexpensive and timely mass transportation system. Rather than improve the number of ways commuters can get into and out of our cities by car, we should be looking at methods for making it unnecessary to drive into those cities in the first place. I would envision numerous outlying parking areas with continuous electric monorail services and electric shuttles throughout the currently congested cities. The same would apply to areas in many cities and towns that are bottleneck roads. (In Rhode Island, Route 2 in Warwick comes to mind, as does Mineral Spring Avenue in North Providence.)

Of course what I propose sounds radical and would generate a great deal of argument. But just how practical is it to continue down our present course? In Rhode Island we are nearing the completion of a new stretch of I-195 in a futile attempt to decrease the rush hour congestion heading through Providence. While it may offer temporary respite, it is a solution that will last no more than five years given the current rate of traffic growth. When you consider that the project itself has taken over ten years to initiate, execute, and complete, that five year solution doesn't sound quite so appealing.

Radical thought and innovative solutions that will thrust us into the 21st century are precisely what is needed right now. We don't need to simply improve the gas efficiencies of our cars, we need to get them off the road entirely. So where is the innovation? Where is the forward thinking that drove this nation into the industrial revolution, lead the world through the space race, and built the world-wide information network that we enjoy today?

In 1962, President Kennedy set before us an extremely aggressive, nearly impossible goal. One that, with a sense of nationalism that is woefully absent today, we achieved in July, 1969. Kennedy's words in reference to that quest for the moon could well be applied to our energy crisis today:

"Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it--we mean to lead it."

Should we not tackle the quest for a 21st century energy solution and infrastructure redesign with the same attitude, with the same zeal? What we need today is leadership, not political rhetoric. We have the talent in this nation to tackle the energy problem if only we are given the right direction, the right focus, and the right funding. So to our national leaders, I pose this challenge. For once in your careers, lead. Set the initiative and lead us into the future.


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