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16/12/2006 | A SAFE Approach to the Energy Debate

Stratfor Staff

Dec. 13 saw the launch of yet another campaign in the United States for a new national energy policy, this one led by Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE). The coalition is headed by a combination of former U.S. defense and foreign policy leaders and a long list of corporate chief executives.

 

SAFE's role, as expressed during the unveiling of the new campaign, is to argue that the U.S. economy and foreign policy are poorly served by the country's current energy policy, particularly the country's reliance on the Middle East for oil.

The recommendations that SAFE has issued are not unrealistic, which makes them remarkable. A number of coalitions have sprung up in the past three years to discuss the ways in which the nation's energy system is broken. Former CIA Director James Woolsey manages two coalitions designed to enlist support from foreign policy experts on climate and energy issues. There is an energy coalition for Christian evangelicals. There is one for labor. Meanwhile, the more familiar environmental coalitions have even given way to environmental-labor and environmental-NRA-hunter alliances. The purpose of these coalitions is to increase the constituencies that are being reached with the message that, first, the current system is broken (or intolerably dangerous) and, second, we need to change it in ways that either aid foreign policy or slow climate change or stop habitat loss.

After years of differentiating between energy issues and environmental issues, environmentalists have put themselves at the center of the debate. In doing so, the environmental community has taken on one of the most complex issues the country faces. It is important to note that the environmental community has not historically been able to provide realistic answers to the complex problems the energy issue raises. SAFE's flashy entry into the debate raises the stakes dramatically, especially since the Democratic Congress seems amenable to taking up some form of environment/energy legislation that addresses issues of security, climate change and prices. The key question for the environmental community is whether it is willing to make concessions and take a public stance as a significant player in this debate or whether it will be pushed to the periphery by more pragmatic, moderate voices such as those that constitute SAFE.

The SAFE Premise

SAFE is predicated on the idea that energy policy is a crucial national security concern, just behind weapons proliferation as a threat to the country. SAFE argues that the country can improve its security with a mix of increased domestic oil and gas supplies, increased security around oil supplies in allied non-Arab countries, increased energy efficiency and increased refining capacity. The coalition presents the list of recommendations as a "menu" from which policymakers can pick and choose. The point of the menu is to provide politically and technologically feasible methods of ensuring continued, reliable energy throughout the country.

During the coalition's press briefing Dec. 13 in Washington, D.C., FedEx founder and CEO Frederick Smith characterized the SAFE report by saying, "During the past two decades, U.S. energy security has grown worse with each passing year. Today's recommendations aim to break this cycle of failure by focusing on both increasing supply and reducing demand. Republicans need to accept sensible increases in vehicle fuel efficiency standards and Democrats must be willing to allow responsible expansion of oil exploration and production. This grand supply-demand compromise is the best path forward."

SAFE's co-chairs are Smith and former Marine Commandant and retired Gen. P.X. Kelley. Other coalition members include Michael Eskew, the CEO of UPS, Inc.; Adam Goldstein of Royal Caribbean International; Herbert Kelleher of Southwest Airlines; and Andrew Liveris of the Dow Chemical Co.

Energy in the 110th Congress

SAFE's entry into the energy debate reflects the fact that, because of the change in Congress, energy issues are poised to return to national policy attention in 2007. Republicans passed a national Energy Bill in 2005 that solidified a number of policies, but many Democrats would like to undo parts of this bill and add additional elements that will both bear a clear Democratic stamp and also draw clear political distinctions between the two dominant parties.

The Democrats inherit a very complicated debate and set of potential trade-offs. In energy issues, the trade-offs are almost infinite. Take, for instance, the chemical industry's participation in SAFE. The industry's interest is in inexpensive energy and in decreased prices for natural gas. Of these two, as long as energy prices are predictable, the industry would rather see lower natural gas prices. Environmentalists, meanwhile, advocate reducing greenhouse gas and other air emissions by convincing American utilities to switch from coal to natural gas. From the utilities' perspective, this is expensive -- an added cost that most utilities can push down to customers -- but it also dramatically reduces the regulatory burden and uncertainty surrounding future regulations, so some are moving toward natural gas.

For the chemical industry, this move by utilities means burning an irreplaceable feedstock when there are alternative sources for energy creation. It also means that in the United States, where gas is scarce and more expensive than Taiwan or Europe, the U.S. chemical industry's key feedstock is more expensive than for its rivals overseas. For the utilities, the switch means moving away from coal, which is plentiful in the United States and, over the long term, has relatively predictable supply dynamics. For environmentalists, the move has led to infighting about the construction of new liquefied natural gas facilities. In short, the issue of natural gas policy alone has permutations that can be discussed for months. What is a legislator to do if he wants to retain the U.S. chemicals industry and reduce power plant pollution?

An easy answer that has been floated is to move to "clean coal," a technology that promises to reduce the carbon and particulate pollution from coal used in electric utilities. This possible answer frees up natural gas, but it still has critics, including some environmentalists who argue that the environmental impact of mining alone is reason to move away from coal. Others argue that the carbon capture and other elements of clean coal are not proven and that they will continue the American focus on greenhouse-gas-emitting energy systems.

Similar chain reactions of decisions and consequences -- predicted and unpredictable -- are triggered by any discussion of automobile fuel efficiency (can American automakers survive if fuel efficiency standards are raised?), airline fuels, increased oil exploration and production. Literally dozens of other examples can be used that show the same depth of trade-offs, and the more politicians study the issues the less comfortable they are making new policies.

The Role of Environmentalists

Coalitions such as SAFE provide these politicians with a key service -- a vetted, bipartisan view of complex issues. The politics of SAFE are almost impossible to stereotype, and the interests involved are sufficiently varied to suggest a well-thought-out agenda. At some point, all SAFE members are advocating compromises that work against their immediate interests, which lends credibility to the entire undertaking. The business leaders are essentially signing off on the general acceptability of these specific menu items.

For environmentalists, SAFE's entry into the energy debate presents a unique challenge. The environmental community was instrumental in developing the argument that "oil addiction" is a foreign policy issue. The strategy to use oil addiction and foreign affairs was cut short, however, when the president conceded that the country was "addicted to foreign oil" in his State of the Union address in January. In doing this, he essentially co-opted the environmentalists' strategy -- taking the "foreign oil" elements and turning them into his own issue.

In response, the U.S. environmental community has been forced to come up with new arguments about the relevance of its position. Environmentalists have had great success with a state-by-state strategy that is increasing business attention to the climate issue -- witness SAFE's significant business membership -- by forcing businesses to see that they cannot avoid the issue altogether. These successes have begun to increase the amount of money being invested in the next generation of energy-efficient technologies.

However, despite the success of the state-level strategy, the national environmental movement has lost its place among the issue leaders on energy. With a Democratic Congress presumably coming into place (the health of Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., remains unclear at this writing), the time is right for environmentalists to strike. The problem is, when they do strike, they now must present a plan as compelling to congressional Democrats as the SAFE plan and those of other more traditionally bipartisan groups. If they do not compete with SAFE and its ilk, environmentalists will again move to the wings while the bulk of federal policy is made without them, despite a Democratic Congress.

Internally, there are a lot of barriers for the environmental movement to meet a high bar of pragmatism and concessions. First, the movement remains a fractured coalition without a clear manifesto or single source of wisdom from which preferred policies can be derived. Instead, policy recommendations are made by committee, and in the environmental community the committees contain a wide array of ideologies and approaches to environmentalism. At the end of the day, it has been nearly impossible for the nation's environmentalists to agree on a specific, realistic policy.

For example, it is near heresy to suggest that the Sierra Club endorse the use of nuclear power. Many important environmental leaders are willing to explore nuclear power if it is a route to significantly cutting the nation's greenhouse gas emissions, but any coalition that wants to claim it represents the American environmental movement must also have the participation of the Sierra Club. Therefore, nukes are off the table.

If American environmentalists are going to shed their reputation as professional critics who offer few solutions, it should happen now. If they offer a complementary energy plan that suggests a willingness to compromise, they will dramatically increase their relevance in the politics of the 110th Congress. Not only are environmental values an important part of the emerging Democratic party strategy, the party also needs a set of issues that it can use to draw clear distinctions between Democrats and Republicans. Environmental issues remain a strong piece of the Democratic realm, and Republicans have done little to address them.

Ultimately, it will be nearly impossible for the environmental community to come together around a realistic energy policy; the best it can hope to achieve is to move the debate closer to its point of view. Pulling the mainstream debate toward this position is, on one hand, a significant part of the environmentalists' mission; on the other hand, it is a statement that environmentalists will forever be on the periphery of the mainstream -- never to be taken too seriously.

Stratfor (Estados Unidos)

 


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