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March 29-April 4, 2006

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He thinks a gas tax would make the Saudis angry because we're asking for more oil but increasing the price to lower demand

By Novella Carpenter

THE GREAT THING about living in the Bay Area is there are a million public lectures and talks going on. Take your pick: Got a passing interest in healing with mushrooms? Need all of your questions answered about Bhutan? Around here, you'll probably find it. Along those lines, I sat in on a brown-bag lunch discussion led by David Goldwyn, Clinton's assistant secretary of energy. These days, Goldwyn has become, like all good former public officials, a consultant. He has also recently edited a collection of essays called Energy and Security: Toward a New Foreign Policy Strategy.

The title of his talk was "Bush Energy Policy: Visionary or Snake Oil?" Any time a talk covers snake oil, I'm so there. Goldwyn began with a PowerPoint presentation that showed that 39 percent of the world's consumption of energy is petroleum oil. Twenty-nine percent of that is used by the United States. But countries like Asia and China, as they "develop," will soon use just as much as America. Because of this increased development and population growth, by 2030 it is projected that we will need to double the number of barrels of oil produced. This is why Bush got onstage for the State of the Union and proclaimed that we're addicted to oil. His plan included: (1) Replacing 75 percent of the oil imports from the Middle East. (2) A 22 percent increase in clean energy research. (3) Cellulosic ethanol research. (4) Hydrogen.

I'll walk you through it. (1) Oil is a commodity. If the United States replaced 75 percent of its Middle East oil, it just means someone else buys that oil. Snake oil. (2) Bush actually cut overall energy spending—things like weatherization projects, Energy Star programs—in order to raise the research and development dollars. And what's R&D going to do? Twiddle their thumbs and spend money. Snake oil. (3) Though cellulosic ethanol (fuel made from corn stalks, not corn) would be great in theory, unfortunately Bush added research money but cut deployment dollars. See above. (4) Hydrogen. More funding; significant international cooperation. However, the fear is nuclear power will be used to generate the hydrogen. Goldwyn says: "semivisionary."

He has a few ideas that he thinks would work better. Namely, a gas tax. "On Sept. 12, if George Bush had said to people, 'This is a sacrifice I want you to make in order to make America safe, a 50-cent gas tax,' people would have been glad to do something," Goldwyn theorized. "But now that time has passed." He thinks a gas tax would make the Saudis angry because we're asking for more oil but increasing the price to lower demand.

But the real point of Goldwyn's talk was to scare us. "If Iran turned off the oil spigot, it would almost undoubtedly cause a recession in the United States," Goldwyn said. See, our thirst for oil makes us vulnerable, hence the whole security issue. He also pointed out that because China and India will soon become the biggest buyers of oil, they will actually wield more power.

Eventually, according to Goldwyn, the United States won't be able to muster much pull in the global scene because it won't be able to threaten an oil embargo. Fear is the motivator Goldwyn thinks is going to change American fuel-consuming patterns. He suggested an energy policy that focuses on deployment, not R&D; a national technology strategy and credits for automakers making hydrogen/electric cars—all ways to encourage fuel saving, but not depending on what he called "virtue." He doesn't believe that Americans would voluntarily sacrifice something by paying more money or reducing engine size. I call Snake Oil on that. Americans are seeing a world being destroyed by oil. I'm here to tell Mr. Goldwyn to tell the other politicians that I want to sacrifice something, I want to do something, anything, to alleviate this terrible stress on the world. I think other people feel the same way. We need leaders who will help us make glad sacrifices. Right?

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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.