The United States could produce energy far in excess of its needs, yet President Bush promotes his energy policy with dramatic urgency. The Bush White House opposes any government interventions in the economy, yet a 'national energy policy' - by definition - flatly contradicts all its free market principles. This paradox is easily explained: the United States is now unable to exploit its vast potential for energy production because of an entanglement of legal obstacles, some created and defended by private recourse to the courts, some legislated by Congress, some imposed by the regulations of past Administrations. There is enough coal to generate all the electricity that America consumes - and will consume for centuries to come - but open-cast mining and coal-generated power are both severely restricted for environmental reasons, while the private legal resistance of local residents along the way stops the construction of new transmission lines. Reserves of natural gas are not quite so huge, but the fact that by 2100 today's wells will be exhausted is not the cause of the current scarcities in many parts of the country. Again, the reason is the near impossibility of obtaining the consent of every local jurisdiction and every affected resident to lay new long-distance pipelines. As for nuclear generation - the only energy source that emits no gases into the atmosphere - two decades of advances in reactor safety remain on paper, because nobody can invest in new generating capacity so long as private legal action by the anti-nuclear lobby can block any project for years and years. Oil reserves, finally, are in sharp decline in part because drilling is prohibited in most of the most promising geological formations, from offshore Florida to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Even imported oil cannot entirely fill the gap because of legal obstacles to the construction of new refineries and product pipelines. What has already happened in California (an absolute shortage of electricity) and in Chicago (record high petrol prices) will happen elsewhere if present trends continue.
LRB 7 June 2001 | PDF Download