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No Leadership + No Urgency = No Solution To Energy Problem

By Tom Bevan

Republicans typically believe government is part of the problem rather than part of the solution, but history shows that in certain instances our government is capable of greatness in ways that the private sector is unable to match on its own - but only when there is strong leadership and a tremendous sense of urgency and focus.

For example, in June 1942, General Leslie Groves took the reins of a fledgling nuclear research program that was spread all across the country. Thirty-seven months later the United States ushered in the Atomic Age by successfully detonating a nuclear weapon near Alamogordo, New Mexico using a synthetic substance (plutonium-239) which had only been discovered in early 1941.

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued what some considered a fantastically ambitious goal: to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Eight years and two months later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 lunar module and onto the surface of the moon. Four days later the entire crew returned safely to Earth.

So why we can't we marshal the same sort of national effort to accelerate the transition of our economy to alternative fuels and energy independence?

Let's put one of the main factors of our current energy situation in context. The first Ford Model-T rolled off the assembly line in October 1908 and went about twenty-five miles on a gallon of gas. Nearly one hundred years later we're still using the same basic combustion engine to power our vehicles and getting slightly worse mileage, except now there are more than 220 million cars, SUV's, vans and light trucks on the road in America, according to the latest data compiled by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

America now consumes one quarter of the total world petroleum output, an astonishing 20.5 million barrels a day. Yet even after September 11 revealed just how consequential our dependence on Middle Eastern oil has become, what sort of true sense of urgency have we gotten from the President and both parties in Congress on the issue over the last five years? The answer is 'not much' and certainly 'not enough.'

President Bush has put forth a number of initiatives over the years (a National Energy Policy in 2001, a Hydrogen Fuel Initiative in 2003, and an Advanced Energy Initiative unveiled in January) that all seem to have two things in common: they sound good and then quickly disappear into the ether. In his 2006 State of the Union Address, the President famously declared that America is "addicted to oil" and he set a national goal of replacing more than 75% of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. Again, Bush hit the right note with this statement, but that note has fallen flat as months have gone by without any sense of follow-up, urgency, or focus.

Congress has been no better, haggling and bickering over separate pieces of the same larger puzzle. Democrats have been intransigent about boosting domestic supply through drilling in ANWR and licensing new nuclear power plants, Republicans have been reluctant to embrace things like raising CAFÉ standards and promoting conservation. The result is that it took Congress four years to pass a $14.5 billion piece of energy legislation that is at best a band-aid applied to a large, and growing wound.

The latest price crunch has highlighted the pathetic lack of leadership in Congress, with both parties scurrying about pointing fingers, calling for investigations and proposing policies that offer zero long term solutions and will actually make things worse in the short run by encouraging consumption.

According to the White House, we've spent $10 billion over the last five years "developing cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources." That's not a tremendous amount of money for something so important; believe it or not it's the same amount Senate Republicans proposed for their dopey gas rebate last week.

Instead of peddling handouts, Republicans should have faith that the country will respond to real leadership on the issue of energy independence. In many ways the situation is analogous to 1942 and 1961: we have lots of smart people spread all around the country who are thinking hard about the issue, conducting exciting research, and making valuable recommendations. All that's missing is the political will to bring these people together using the resources of the U.S. government to coordinate research efforts and hammer out some of the tough decisions that must be made to help clear the way for a rapid transformation of the way we produce and consume energy in America.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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