mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Kerry’s Energy Plan

In the 1960s John F. Kennedy inspired America with his pledge to put a
man on the moon in ten years. Now, John F. Kerry is invoking that
proud history to promote his own plan to end US dependence on Middle
East oil. This is the great project for our generation, Kerry
declared in May, and his recent comments suggest it will be a major
theme in the fall campaign as well. During Kerry’s speech at the
Democratic convention, for example, he mentioned the environment only
in passing. But he spoke at length about freeing the country from
Middle East oil, winning some of the strongest applause of the night
by promising to rely on American ingenuity and innovation—not the
Saudi royal family.

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Elevating energy over the environment is shrewd politics for Kerry.
True, George Bush has compiled the worst environmental record in
modern American history, while Kerry has earned a 96 percent lifetime
voting record from the League of Conservation Voters, a nonpartisan
group in Washington that has now endorsed him. But the Kerry campaign
recognizes that the environment is not a decisive issue for most
voters. According to Gallup’s Earth Day poll, the environment ranks
eighth among issues the voting public worries a great deal
about—behind healthcare, terrorism, the economy, illegal immigration
and unemployment.

So rather than hammer Bush on environmental issues per se, Kerry will
send a pro-environment—and pro-economic—message by talking about
energy independence. Building a New Energy Economy based on improved
efficiency and rapid development of solar, wind, hydrogen and other
renewable fuels, Kerry claims, will generate half a million jobs over
ten years and give US firms leadership in some of the world’s most
profitable industries. It will also strengthen national security. In
their newly released book, Our Plan for America, Kerry and running
mate John Edwards call ending US dependence on Middle East oil one of
the four most urgent challenges facing the nation (along with
defeating terrorism, stopping the spread of nuclear, chemical and
biological weapons and promoting democracy, freedom and opportunity
around the world). No other domestic issue is given such prominence.
Dependence on Middle East oil, Kerry and Edwards argue, threatens US
security because it leaves the economy reliant on authoritarian
regimes…that do not always share all of our key interests.
Stressing energy independence, in short, enables Kerry to criticize
Bush on both the environment and Iraq—Let’s insure that no young
American soldier will have to fight and die because of our dependence
on foreign oil—while also proposing an economic solution likely to
please labor and capital alike.

Call it the 2020 plan. Kerry wants the United States to derive 20
percent of both its motor fuel and its electricity from domestic,
renewable fuel sources by 2020. By no means would that end US
dependence on foreign oil, but it would be a big step in the right
direction. To get there, Kerry proposes to spend $30 billion over ten
years on a mix of tax incentives, federal R&D and public-private
partnerships. Significantly, he recognizes that improving energy
efficiency, though not sexy, is the quickest and cheapest source of
new energy. His plan calls for reducing the federal government’s
energy consumption by 20 percent while challenging the private and
nonprofit sectors to do the same, with help from federal tax
incentives.

Because transportation accounts for 70 percent of America’s oil
consumption, any serious alternative must confront the nation’s
addiction to automobiles. As Kerry points out, it’s impossible for the
United States to drill its way to energy independence, as Bush seems
to intend: This nation has only 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves
but accounts for nearly 25 percent of demand. Instead, Kerry says he
will update and strengthen fuel efficiency standards. But in a
potential warning sign to clean-energy advocates, Kerry has backed off
what he supported as a senator: demanding that Detroit’s vehicles meet
36 miles per gallon efficiency standards. For that stick Kerry now
substitutes a carrot: $10 billion over ten years to subsidize
consumers, autoworkers and manufacturers as they transition to making
and buying fuel-efficient vehicles. Hybrids are the most popular
technology today, but Kerry wants 100,000 hydrogen-fueled vehicles on
the road by 2010 and 2.5 million by 2020. As for electricity, Kerry
will pursue his 20 percent green-energy goal by expanding the
government’s existing tax credits for wind and biomass to include all
forms of renewable fuels. In a proposal likely to play well in
critical Midwestern swing states, he touts electricity produced from
wind and biomass—that is, agricultural waste products—as attractive
cash crops for financially strapped farmers.

All this will be music to the ears of environmentalists, as are most
of the positions Kerry has taken on explicitly environmental issues.
As one of his first acts in office, he says, he will reinstate the
Clinton-era roadless rule in national forests, which Bush has
undermined. He will also prohibit logging of old-growth trees, reverse
Bush’s rollback of the Clean Air Act, ban snowmobiles and jet skis
from national parks, boost funding for environmental enforcement and
reform the 1872 law that allows corporate miners to pay literally
pennies for extraction rights on federal land, which he has called a
national disgrace. Kerry even promises to promote environmental
justice by reviving the keystone environmental principle of polluter
pays. As such, he would restore the tax on chemical corporations that
finances the federal Superfund program charged with cleaning up toxic
waste sites, often found in nonwhite, low-income communities. These
sites’ cleanup slowed to a crawl after Bush refused to reauthorize the
tax in 2002.

But Kerry is no environmental saint. He and his wife, Teresa Heinz
Kerry, own five luxury homes and an SUV—accoutrements of a
high-consumption lifestyle at odds with environmental sustainability.
He even told a Missouri audience that buying a great big SUV is
terrific, terrific. That’s America. Indeed. Kerry also voted against
the Kyoto Protocol on global warming as a senator and continues to
oppose it as a presidential candidate. I would reopen the negotiating
process, fix the flaws and move forward, Kerry told Amanda Griscom of
the online magazine Grist in his most extensive environmental
interview as a candidate. (By flaws, Kerry means Kyoto’s failure to
require immediate greenhouse reductions from China and other
fast-growing developing nations.) He favors expanded investment in
biotechnology, anathema to many environmentalists. Bowing to electoral
realities in West Virginia and Midwestern swing states, Kerry’s energy
plan budgets $10 billion to develop clean coal, a technology most
environmentalists dismiss as a wasteful chimera. And he supports
vastly increased natural gas production, including a pipeline to move
35 trillion cubic feet of reserves from Alaska to the Lower 48 states.

Still, virtually all of America’s environmental organizations will
back Kerry in November because he is obviously preferable to Bush. The
big question about Kerry is whether he will turn out to be another Al
Gore: a politician who genuinely comprehends the immense environmental
dangers and opportunities facing human civilization but who shrinks
from doing much about them for fear of antagonizing powerful
interests. How Kerry confronts this challenge will become clear only
if he wins in November. It’s easy to look good when you’re running
against the worst environmental President in history. Taking on the
powers that be is a lot harder, even from inside the Oval Office.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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