Bob Graham: Energy Bill a Missed Opportunity

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The Senate is expected to vote on the energy bill Friday. Commentator Bob Graham, a former Democratic senator, says the bill makes a critical mistake — it would limit U.S. dependence on foreign oil by depleting domestic oil reserves. He challenges Americans to re-examine their lives and expand on resources that conserve oil use, like public transport.


The Senate is expected to vote on the energy bill today. It passed in the House yesterday. The bill includes more than $14 billion in tax breaks for both traditional and alternative energy companies. That includes oil, coal, nuclear power and wind power. It would also double the use of ethanol, made from corn. Many supporters say the bill will help reduce American dependence on foreign oil. Commentator Bob Graham, the former Democratic senator from Florida, thinks that's the wrong goal.


The missing word in the new energy bill is wind. There is nothing more consequential to a national energy policy than the time period it will cover. The energy bill focuses on the next decade. Instead we should be looking forward two or three generations. The most contentious source of energy today and likely in the future is petroleum. The United States is currently using 20 million barrels of petroleum a day, 13 million of those come from outside the United States.

The United States consumes approximately a quarter of the world's oil. But we have only 2 percent of known petroleum reserves. Under almost every credible scenario, the United States is facing a losing battle to maintain its current seven million barrels of daily oil production. We are becoming increasingly dependent on cheaper and more available oil from elsewhere. How did we get in this predicament? In part, because through the early 1970s, the United States strictly curtailed oil imports, forcing us to draw deeper on our own scarce resources. In the short run the policy provided a sense of national security. Over the long run, it made us even more vulnerable to pressures from abroad.

The energy bill focuses on achieving the non-sustainable goal of oil independence. It does so by increasing domestic oil production, and it would use tax breaks to further subsidize US drilling. These will surely drain America's meager remaining oil reserves, leaving the United States totally and permanently dependent on foreign oil. The missing link is the willpower to take control of our petroleum future. There is another approach. In South America, Colombia is building its energy policy around the principle of stretching its domestic supplies to last a predetermined number of years. This is accomplished, for example, by limiting the domestic extraction of natural gas to an amount that will still leave years of at least partial self-sufficiency.

To put this into United States petroleum terms, we could establish three generations; 75 years is the goal. To meet that goal we, would have to reduce domestic production, not increase it. This reduction would be a powerful force to accelerate conservation measures and the development of alternative energy sources. It would mean increasing the efficiency of our motor vehicles and expanding public transportation. And, yes, it would mean an increased share of foreign petroleum. Through conservation we could try to cap that amount that current levels. This would be a very hard policy for the president and the Congress to adopt politically. It would challenge the current generation of Americans to re-examine our individualized and take charge of our future, but our children and our grandchildren will be very pleased if we do.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Bob Graham is a former Democratic senator from Florida and author of "Intelligence Matters."

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