By Donella Meadows
–September 5, 1991–
“Now, let me get this straight. Energy efficiency — good. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — bad.”
So says President Bush in the men’s room at the end — the very end, as the last credits are rolling — of the movie “Naked Gun 2 1/2.”
I would not have gone to see Naked Gun 2 1/2, much less stayed through the credits, if my energy-expert friends hadn’t urged me to. It’s a silly movie that rarely rises above the level of bathroom humor, and it takes too many undeserved pokes at Barbara Bush. But my friends like the film because its theme is, believe it or not, energy. Its plot, insofar as it has one, is about an attempt by the big energy industries to head off a national policy that favors efficiency and renewable sources.
The energy jokes are pretty funny. The acronyms for the oil, coal, and nuclear lobbying groups are SPILL, SMOKE, and KABOOM. A simulated nuclear power ad shows a happy family having a backyard picnic with huge cooling towers in the background, while the family dog joyfully wags both its tails. One of my friends who consulted for the movie tells of showing director David Zucker some real nuclear-industry ads. Zucker doubled over with laughter. The ads were almost ridiculous enough to go into the movie unchanged.
It’s good to have something light to make us laugh just as real energy policy hits heavy going in Washington. The central issue there is the same one that was spoofed in the movie — shall we have a policy that’s good for a few big companies or one that’s good for the nation? That will be decided within the next month or so.
The nation is clear what it wants and needs. Polls for more than a decade have shown that a large majority of us favor solar power over oil, gas, and coal — and we put nuclear at the bottom of our preference list. This ranking remains stable despite millions of dollars in industry ads telling us to think otherwise.
More recently, as people have learned about energy efficiency, it has become the preferred short-term strategy. It is quick and cheap. It gives us the same comfort or mobility or performance at lower cost and with less pollution. More miles per gallon, more light per kilowatt, more heating or cooling per cubic foot of gas. The Department of Energy held hearings across the country last year and heard over and over: make efficiency the top priority. The DOE’s own analysis came out with the same recommendation.
Efficiency in the short term, renewables in the long term, oil, coal, and gas to tide us over until we get there. Studies by numerous government and nonprofit organizations have shown that this policy is possible and affordable and that it would solve many environmental, security, and balance-of-trade problems.
The trouble is, there are no large lobbies poised to make huge profits from efficiency or solar. There will be plenty of profits from these softer energy options, but they will be spread out over thousands of entrepreneurs, who have not organized to make significant campaign contributions. Therefore the policy submitted by President Bush to the Congress is long on oil, coal, and nuclear, short on efficiency and renewables.
Congress has been sifting through dozens of energy bills, only two of which look like they have a chance of passing. One is S.1220, also called the Johnston-Wallop Bill, which is essentially what the president asked for. The Union of Concerned Scientists sums it up: “This bill has something for everyone (except the American public).”
S. 1220 gives the oil companies permission to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a “reassessment” of the current moratorium on offshore drilling. It gives the nuclear industry speeded-up licensing that allows the public to raise safety issues only at the initial planning stage. The coal companies get support for “clean coal” and coal-derivative technologies. S. 1220 contains only feeble encouragements for efficiency and renewable strategies.
It would be better not to have an energy policy at all than to have that one.
A modest step in a better direction is the bipartisan Bryan-Gorten Bill, S.279. It mandates just one thing: vehicles with higher fuel efficiency, which would save more oil at less cost than the oil companies hope to discover in the Wildlife Refuge, and would do so not just in one final burst, but permanently. Even if Congress passes this bill, President Bush has announced his intention to veto it.
Environmental groups are urging a “Write Now” campaign, so both president and Congress hear loudly and clearly from the public over the next few weeks, as these bills work their say toward law. If you care about the environment, your tax bill, your electricity, oil or gas bill, or the energy security of the nation, this is a good time to sound off.
You don’t have to make the message complicated. Tell them to get it straight from Naked Gun 2 1/2. Energy efficiency — good. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — bad.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991