The Energy Crisis

The Energy Crisis

The Energy Crisis

How you look at things.
May 10 2001 3:00 AM

The Energy Crisis

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The best issue Democrats developed against President Bush in his first 100 days was the environment. It took months of controversial decisions by Bush—cutting the Environmental Protection Agency budget, proposing oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, burying the Kyoto global warming treaty, renouncing his pledge to cap carbon dioxide emissions, and suspending new limits on arsenic in drinking water—to establish the broad pattern of behavior necessary to give Bush a bad image on the environment in general.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Bush's surrogates point out that he has taken pro-environment positions on preserving wetlands, restricting lead emissions, and cleaning up urban lots. They also note that Bush may eventually adopt tougher arsenic limits. But as long as they're debating the question of who's more assiduous about environmental protection, they can't win. They need to change the question. That's why, in the Bush administration, the environment issue is out, and the energy issue is in.

You don't need to look further than the prices at your local gas station, or the recurring news stories about rolling blackouts in California, to see that energy is a real problem. But gas prices and blackouts were a problem last year, too. The difference is, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore had no political incentive to describe those events as part of an energy emergency. Gore was running for president as an environmentalist against a former oilman (Bush) and an oil services company CEO (Dick Cheney). The only question Democrats wanted to debate was whether Big Oil was gouging consumers.

By packaging their oil drilling plans and relaxed air pollution standards together with rising gas prices, winter heating costs, and summer blackouts in various regions of the country, Bush and Cheney have built an issue that is stronger than the sum of its parts. While the elements are indisputable, the notion that they ought to be viewed as a system, with Bush's proposals seen as an integrated solution to an integrated problem, is in part a product of public relations. White House principals and aides speak constantly of an "energy strategy" to repair an "energy crisis" caused by the absence of a Clinton "energy policy." "What people need to hear loud and clear is that we're running out of energy in America," Bush declared last week. Talk of an "energy crisis" now permeates the media, and polls confirm that most Americans believe such a crisis has arrived.

Right now, most Americans oppose drilling in ANWR. But the more we discuss that idea in terms of energy rather than the environment, the more the political equation changes. Economic considerations enumerated by Bush and Cheney—"sharp increases in fuel prices from home heating oil to gasoline," electrical threats to "the high-tech industry," strangled economic growth, and layoffs—add weight to the pro-drilling side of the equation. National security concerns—the dependence on foreign oil that, in Cheney's words, makes it "easy for a regime such as … Iraq to hold us hostage"—enter the debate as well. Bush's and Cheney's careers in the oil industry begin to look more like expertise than like a conflict of interest. "It's useful to have somebody who knows something about the energy business involved in the effort," Cheney argued yesterday on CNN. Eventually, the energy side of the equation overwhelms the environmental side. As EPA Administrator Christie Whitman explained recently in defense of Bush's reversal on carbon dioxide: "He was right, all things considered. We're in an energy crisis."

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Environmentalists hope to head off this strategy by distinguishing energy conservation from production. Through conservation, they argue, we can have sufficient energy and environmental protection without additional drilling or burning of fossil fuels. Bush and Cheney respond in part by dissolving the same dilemma from the opposite direction. Through modern technology, they argue, we can have additional drilling and fossil-fuel burning without undue environmental harm. But the energy framework also brings into the discussion a problem to which environmentalists have no good answer because it's about energy, not the environment. There isn't enough "infrastructure"—refineries, gas pipelines, power plants, and electrical grids—to process and distribute energy in the United States. The fact that solving this problem poses no clear environmental threat—and that Bush and Cheney, unlike their opponents, have been talking about it for months—adds credibility and coherence to their way of framing the debate.

Having enlarged the energy side of the debate, Bush and Cheney proceed to narrow and isolate the environmentalist side. They portray their opponents as arguing not for more conservation but for conservation alone. Outlining the White House energy strategy in a speech last week, Cheney accused environmental groups of falsely suggesting that "we could simply conserve or ration our way out of the situation we're in." Days later, Bush took issue with "naive" critics who "say that we can be okay from an energy perspective by only focusing on conservation. We've got to find additional supplies of energy." As Bush and Cheney see it, energy advocates are for conservation, but conservationists are against energy.

The subtlest and most decisive art in any framing contest is convincing the public that some things—those that are politically advantageous or that you want to change—are open to human deliberation and intervention, whereas other things—those that are politically problematic or that you don't want to change—are objective and immovable. In this case, environmentalists want you to think that fossil-fuel drilling and burning are inherently too dirty and that nuclear energy is inherently too dangerous, whereas technologies for alternative and renewable energy are getting better all the time. Therefore, we should give up on the former and commit ourselves to perfecting the latter. The media have largely bought into this spin.

Cheney has reversed this tactic. Posing as the open-minded optimist, he challenges Americans to consider new "clean coal" technologies and horizontal drilling methods that could make drilling in ANWR safe and unobtrusive. But when it comes to boosting energy efficiency and developing alternative energy sources, Cheney shuts down the discussion by asserting objective limits. "For now, we must take the facts as they are," he says. "Whatever our hopes for developing alternative sources and for conserving energy … fossil fuels provide virtually 100 percent of our transportation needs and an overwhelming share of our electricity requirements. For years down the road, this will continue to be true. … The options left to us are fairly limited. … We must take the facts as they are. … To try and tell ourselves otherwise is to deny reality."

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Once conservationism is stripped of its exclusive claim to environmental protection and is pitted against the nation's economic well-being, its moral superiority can be turned upside down. It is reduced, in Cheney's words, to a philosophy of "austerity," an attack on America's "standard of living," and an implicit accusation that the country's energy woes "represent a failing of the American people." Against this self-loathing mentality, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer argues that energy use signifies health and virtue: "The President also believes that the American people's use of energy is a reflection of the strength of our economy, of the way of life that the American people have come to enjoy." On this Nietzschean view, strength and courage lie not in conservation but in acquisition and production. "People have used the conservation arguments in order to avoid some of the tough issues associated with increasing supply," says Cheney. If building more nuclear power plants or drilling in ANWR "was easy, the Clinton administration would have done it. They ducked it for eight years."

The final advantage of the energy framework is that it allows Republicans to sweep conservation and environmental issues into the path of their anti-government message. In a traditional liberal attempt to frame the debate in terms of big business, environmentalists depict Bush and Cheney as tools of corporate polluters. But if the problem is insufficient energy production, then energy producers and consumers are on the same team, and those who want the government to limit production and consumption are our enemy. "Already some groups are suggesting that government should step in to force Americans to consume less energy," Cheney warned last week. Instead of restricting what companies can charge for energy, Bush called for "regulatory relief to encourage an increase in the amount of supplies available for the consumers." Slowly but surely, the White House is pumping a new psychology into the political environment. Whether that's progress or pollution is up to you.

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