There are many, but not one knock-out.
Sorry to keep going on and on about energy policy, but … there’s a flurry of good points and confusion swirling about, so I’ll jump in.
First, Matt the Prolific points to an NRO piece by Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren on some strange misconceptions hovering around the energy debate in Congress.
Their principle point, which The Economist also makes this week, is this:
The hostility directed at "foreign" oil is ridiculous. The amount of oil we import has no bearing on the impact of world oil-market shocks on our economy. Even if the United States imported no oil at all (and we did not restrict trade), supply disruptions abroad would have a similar effect on our economy as if all our oil came from overseas. That’s because oil is traded in global markets: Anything that affects supply or demand anywhere affects prices everywhere.
Thus, the national security argument that we should increase domestic oil exploration, drilling, and production is silly. To the extent Congresscritters are making that argument, they are doing so on behalf of the domestic oil industry. As long as our economy is based on oil, we are vulnerable to oil markets and the countries — mostly in the Middle East — that supply them.
Matt agrees, and concludes this:
The main case for changing our treatment of oil — and energy in general — is the same old one liberals were making before September 11 and really ought to stick to: fossil fuels are bad for the environment. This is a perfectly sufficient reason for supporting measures like tighter fuel-efficiency requirements or higher gas taxes (shudder) to try and discourage oil consumption. … [blah blah hydrogen cars] … Most crucially, replacing gasoline with electricity [for hydrogen cars] made from coal would be a giant leap backwards in environmental terms. Liberals need to make sure that our arguments on energy policy don’t back us into a corner whereby we wind up being unable to oppose that switch because we’ve given so much credence to the confused national-security case against oil.
Ezra thinks that the main environmental case against oil has to do with global warming, and that the global warming argument is too hard to win, since the right has so effectively confused the issue. The "we’re running out of oil" argument, however, is intuitively appealing for the masses. (Ezra, his commenters, and I all agree that hydrogen cars are a big distraction — the main problem is not energy storage but energy sources, and hydrogen isn’t a source, only a storage mechanism.)
And finally, Jeff thinks that all arguments against oil — national security, jobs, global warming, etc. — should be on the table. Power in diversity and all that.
So, where does that leave us? To keep this post from spiraling (further) out of control, I’ll just make a few quick points:
- Moving from foreign to domestic oil has virtually no "energy independence" or national security implications. But moving off of oil altogether surely would (though of course it would take a good long while to do so). For one thing, it would devastate the world oil market and make oil dirt cheap, thus putting a serious crimp in the hegemony of oil-rich dictatorships. It would also free us up to act on our best instincts geopolitically, rather than forever holding hands with said dictators. Why is that not a good national security argument?
- The "we’re running out of oil" argument is indeed intuitively appealing, but what happens if we don’t run out? I’ve heard lots of arguments saying we’re already over the peak, and lots of other arguments saying the peak is still 30 to 50 years out. I don’t think the issue is settled yet. If we rely purely on that argument we could be screwed.
- Similarly, as Matt says, if we rely purely on the national security argument, we may get the country worked up into a xenophobic frenzy, casting about for any energy source that’s not oil — and that could very well be coal (or nuclear).
- Ezra’s right that the global warming debate has become hopelessly confused. Arguing for massive, immediate changes to our economy and way of life based on tiny incremental rises in average global temperature is … well, a hard case to make.
To summarize: though there are tons of arguments in favor of moving from oil to clean energy, none of the arguments is a knock-out on its own. Thus it is in our best interests to keep all the arguments going, and to accept the support and help of anyone who’s making any of them, while not tying ourselves too closely to any one of them.
(Or to be more concise: Jeff’s right.)