Getting real about energy with Congressman Heller

In an op-ed piece in the Nevada Appeal last month " "It's Time for Real Energy Solutions," " Congressman Dean Heller wrote about high fuel prices and the pain they are causing Nevada's families and economy. He wrote, "a real energy policy will address the very basic cause of high prices " supply and demand."

Congressman Heller listed ways to increase our fuel supply, including oil shale. Maybe he doesn't know about the massive amount of water it takes to process oil shale. A BLM programmatic environmental impact statement on oil shale says: "oil shale extraction and processing require several barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced." Western Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, where much of the U.S. oil shale deposits are located, are almost as dry as Nevada " where is the water going to come from to process all that oil shale? From the Colorado River? Tell that to all the downstream states including Nevada.

Congressman Heller also mentioned coal-to-liquid technology. This is a supply-side solution to our current fuel and energy crisis that is being pushed pretty heavily by coal companies. And why not? The U.S. has plenty of coal. But alas, there's another dirty secret. Total greenhouse gas emissions, "Well-to-wheels" (that means all the emissions from the entire process from mining to refining to putting it your gas tank and burning it), from coal-to-liquid is over twice that from crude oil. Not exactly the new energy source we need when we're trying to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

I could go on in this vein, but I was interested in what Congressman Heller had to say about demand-side solutions to our energy problems. Here's what I found: "Simply put, we cannot conserve, tax, or regulate our way out of the problem."

Oh? It seems to me that the Congressman chickened out when talking about the demand-side, so if I may, I'll complete his argument.

Heller says we can't conserve, yet $4-per-gallon gas prices are already giving us the conservation message and we're heeding it. Ford Motor Company reports that S.U.V. sales are down 55 percent from a year ago. Bicycle retailers report new customers walking in every day. Public transportation providers nationwide report steep increases in ridership.

Heller says we can't tax our way out of the problem? Maybe not now, but we sure missed an opportunity. Gas and diesel prices in Europe have been higher than in the U.S. for years " and gas taxes are even higher. In Holland, for example, gas now sells for more than $10 a gallon, and $5.57 of that is tax. High taxes on gasoline have been a deliberate strategy of European governments to reduce demand and it has worked. Europeans drive smaller, more efficient cars, walk, bike, and take public transportation more than Americans do. Europeans are, in fact, "taxing their way out of a problem."

Moreover, over half of what Europeans pay at the pump is going to taxes that support and develop public transportation systems and other public goods, instead of into the pockets of oil companies.

But what does all that heavy taxation do to the European economy? The last time I checked, the Euro was doing pretty well. And here's Jeroen van der Veer, chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, quoted in a recent article in the New York Times: "A society can work, can function and can grow even at higher fuel prices," he says. "It's a way of life " you get used to it."

What about regulation? Here's where we have really missed the boat. In a rare example of bipartisan cooperation, the U.S. Congress, led by Democrats from auto-making states and Republicans, has voted again and again to kill higher corporate average fuel economy standards, known as CAFE's. Higher CAFE's were finally approved in 2007 " the first big increase in auto fuel efficiency standards in 35 years. If higher CAFE's had passed 20 years earlier, we would be "using three billion dollars less oil a day now," reports the New York Times. Unfortunately, Congressman Heller voted against the 2007 bill raising auto fuel efficiency standards.

I agree with Congressman Heller that our current fuel crisis is due primarily to the basic economics of supply and demand " as supplies tighten and demand goes up, prices rise. This will only get worse as demand in Brazil, China and India increases over the next decade.

But another cause of the current energy crisis in this country is an inexcusable failure of leadership. While other developed countries have taxed gas to limit consumption, required regularly increasing automobile fuel efficiency standards, and invested in public transportation, thereby making their economies more secure and less utterly dependent on imported oil, our leaders have been, as the New York Times says, "asleep at the spigot."

If Congressman Heller is really serious about alleviating the effects of high fuel prices, he would not be afraid to talk honestly to his constituents about solving the demand side of the equation. He would work across the aisle to come up with strategies to fund and improve public transportation, to develop the most efficient possible automobiles, to re-imagine an economy and transportation system less dependent on fossil fuels. And this would mean, yes, a change in the way Americans live. We might drive less. We might live in smaller houses closer to where we work. We might even walk to work. Americans are not incapable, as our leaders appear to assume, of changing our consumption patterns when it is in our interest " and the interest of our nation " to do so.

To meet the converging challenges of high fuel prices, global warming, peak oil, and the transition to a post-carbon economy, we need courageous and imaginative leaders at all levels, leaders not afraid to ask the same courage and imagination of their constituents. This is not the kind of leadership exhibited so far by Congressman Heller.

Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives on timely and timeless issues.

Anne Macquarie, a private-sector urban planner, is a 19-year resident of Carson City.


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