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Obama vs. Reality

Even blue-sky goals fall short.

Fortnightly Magazine - February 2009

goal turns the Carter doctrine on its head, in effect saying within 10 years America’s national security should no longer depend on imports from the Persian Gulf.

This is a wise and worthy goal, but precisely how Obama hopes to eliminate these imports remains unclear. In an ideal world, Obama would slap tariffs on Middle East oil cargoes sufficient to cover the costs of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Practical and political realities rule out anything so direct, but achieving even symbolic independence from Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil ( i.e., by reducing U.S. demand by about 3.5 million barrels a day, or 16 percent of total current consumption) will require major changes in U.S. energy strategy—particularly if that strategy also includes dramatic GHG reductions.

Reducing oil imports by the envisioned amount will require the United States to fully exploit its domestic energy resources, and to apply those resources in ways that displace petroleum, such as electrifying the auto industry. But fully half of America’s electricity comes from burning coal—the biggest single source of GHG emissions. Obama’s energy strategy seems to recognize this, by prioritizing efficiency and smart-grid investments, and setting a goal to to double the country’s wind, solar and biofuels capacity within three years.

The industry is poised to respond to that challenge, but even if the “Yes we can!” principle succeeds in erecting windmills and stringing transmission lines with breathtaking speed during the worst credit crisis in decades, achieving even this blue-sky ideal will scarcely change America’s energy strategy. It might satisfy new demand growth, but it won’t free us from Mideast or Venezuelan oil, and it won’t make a dent in our carbon footprint.

Obama’s energy strategy ignores the one existing, scalable, carbon-free source of power—nuclear energy, which has faced fervent opposition from Democratic voters and lawmakers. So even though power companies are ready to begin the nuclear renaissance, “Yes we can!” evidently doesn’t apply to building safe nuclear reactors and fuel management systems.

That leaves our old standby fuels, natural gas and coal. Obama’s strategy does prioritize natural gas development, and it includes clean-coal technology as a general objective. But whether “Yes we can!” applies to building an industry-scale infrastructure to capture and sequester carbon remains to be seen—particularly given well-funded and savvy opposition from groups like the Reality Coalition.

Many Big Plans

Upon watching Obama deliver his inaugural address—and then re-reading that address—it seems clear our new president sincerely believes the rhetoric of his campaign, i.e., that his leadership can unify the American people to transform the country and indeed the world. Obama’s election campaign brilliantly distilled this idea into the phrase, “Yes we can!” and wielded that phrase as both a rallying cry and a defiant challenge.

In his inaugural address, Obama reiterated that challenge in a pointed way: “There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination