"We value an America that controls its own destiny because it's finally and forever independent of Mideast oil . . . our energy plan will invest in new technologies and alternative fuels and the cars of the future, so that no young American in uniform will ever be held hostage to our dependence on oil from the Middle East."
AS MIGHT HAVE been expected, those lines in Sen. John F. Kerry's acceptance speech Thursday won loud applause. But however appealing it may be to voters, even the candidate is by some accounts well aware that "energy independence" is a fiction. To put it bluntly, the United States consumes far more energy than it produces. For the near future, and certainly well beyond the eight years Mr. Kerry could be president, there is no possibility of genuine energy independence, nor is it clear that that is a worthwhile goal. Oil is an internationally traded commodity; there is no intrinsic value to oil drilled here, as opposed to Qatar or the North Sea; we do not speak of "plastic independence" or "textile independence," so why energy?
But if Mr. Kerry's talk of energy independence is meant to signify that his administration would redirect the nation's failed energy policy, the applause is merited. Mr. Kerry's current plan, which the campaign says is under revision, calls for unrealistically high automobile efficiency standards, as well as unrealistically high levels of alternative fuel use. Done right, however, there might be ways to use tax incentives and credits to persuade domestic manufacturers to make more efficient cars, and to persuade consumers to buy them. It is also true that, with the help of aggressive policy changes, both cleaner coal technologies and new biomass fuels, which make use of agricultural byproducts, could produce a much higher percentage of American energy. In the new version of his energy plan, which may be published as soon as next week, Mr. Kerry should spell those ideas out.
While he's at it, Mr. Kerry should also abolish the myriad subsidies that the oil and gas industries receive from the federal government, consider whether carbon or gas taxes might not achieve some of his goals more efficiently, and look again at nuclear energy, a taboo issue yet potentially a huge source of homegrown, non-carbon-producing energy. He is also likely to return to the international arena, abandoned by President Bush, in an effort to begin controlling the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change -- a welcome shift of priorities. None of these changes will eliminate American dependence on foreign oil and natural gas, but if Mr. Kerry promotes them with more fervor than does the current administration, he could substantially reduce overall dependence on fossil fuels. At least Mr. Kerry, unlike Mr. Bush, would be putting the country on the right track.