Forget the rantings of the "spotted owl" crowd -- when Exxon says we're running out of oil, we should get nervous. In the company's most recent fiscal report, it revealed that for every 100 barrels of oil it has pumped over the past ten years it has replaced only 95. While some will use this as an opportunity to renew calls to drill our way to freedom, a non-renewable resource will always remain just that. At some point it simply runs out.
If ever we are to confront meaningfully the issue of energy reform, we will first need to confront the three-headed hydra standing in the way. We all know how it works:
First, there is the tangled thicket of insider dealing. From Dick Cheney's secret meetings with energy executives in advance of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (also known as the Great Oil Company Giveaway) to the shameless horse-trading that preceded last year's health care bill, this "old boy" backslapping maddens and frustrates. Any new attempt at energy reform will almost certainly see these games taken to new heights, especially when entrenched energy interests realize that, given the depletion of conventional resources, the playbook necessarily must change.
Our anger at this backroom dealing then gives birth to the second element of this unholy triumvirate -- the emergence of certain self-designated "Champions for Real America." These characters decry the wrongs that Real Americans everywhere (or at least in non-urban areas) are forced to endure and promise to wage a new "War on Government" in the people's name. Any government-led efforts to shift resources from conventional to alternative energy interests will certainly rouse these never-quite-asleep giants.
These self-professed "champions of the people" then give birth to the third, silver-tongued head of this beastly creature. Its task will be to ensure that discussions about reallocating the $50 billion in federal subsidies that oil companies receive are transformed into a debate about "Big Government's War On American Industry and Jobs." Cloaking special interest protections in the mantle of furious patriotism tends to be good strategy.
Things are not looking good for the Sputnik Moment.
But halfway around the world a group of people faced down a far more forbidding beast and insisted upon a new way of doing business. As our monster pales in comparison to the tyrannies of a 30-year autocracy, we surely could do the same.
As certain of our Big Government-hating lawmakers should know, in the real world clients expect results: just as the necessity of getting a deal done will require proponents of cap and trade to think more flexibly about the next "big" approach, those who reflexively object to reform efforts might be forced to make good faith contributions to the conversation if they know that voters expect constructive action. Those heretofore anti-reform lawmakers might, for instance, take the opportunity to advance proposals that would promote the twin pillars of federalism and economic growth -- such as taking that $50 billion and using it to provide block grants to the states for the development of their own alternative energy projects. (Of course, any such proposal would require their counterparts to abandon their own reflexive thinking: "states rights" is a loaded term -- but allowing Kentucky the right to determine whether it will pursue carbon capture technologies rather than hydrogen power is not the same as allowing Kentucky the right to determine whether African-Americans can attend integrated schools.)
I recently took a test drive in a fully-battery powered vehicle developed by Arcimoto, an Oregon-based company (by the way, I have no business relationship with Arcimoto and never have). The vehicle is a blast. Currently slated to go on the market for $17,500, it has a driving range of up to 160 miles. It needs no gas -- ever. Less than 10% of the company's funding came from public sources, and that which it did receive came in the form of county and municipal loans and grants. The company could immediately go into a low-volume production on this three-wheeled wonder with an additional $1.5 million -- peanuts when compared to BP's $225,000 a day tax deduction for the Deepwater Horizon.
Arcimoto and other innovators stand ready to participate in a new energy revolution. Whether Uncle Sam will partner with them so as create that economic and environmental opportunity, or whether it will continue feeding an entrenched and hungry beast, is an open question. Stay tuned.
Tanya M. Acker is an attorney who represents environmental technology companies and a political and legal commentator.