by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
November 15, 2007
AMERICA SQUANDERED MONEY AND TIME IN ENERGY FIGHT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Here's a statistic that should make your blood boil. According to The Washington Post, oil consumers have paid nearly $5 trillion more for crude oil than they did just five years ago.
That's right. The equivalent of about half of America's national debt (which went up last week to $9 trillion, in case you missed it) has been transferred from the pockets of consumers to the pockets of oil-producing countries that don't particularly like the United States that much.
The Post called it one of the largest transfers of wealth in history and it will only grow larger as oil prices hover near the $100 a barrel mark. Where has the money gone? To Iran, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Russia, among other places.
When you hear politicians in this country talk about how expensive it would be to put this nation on a greener, more energy efficient path, all you have to do is remind them of that $5 trillion and how much of that money is fluttering out of Americans' pockets. Just imagine what could be done with even a fraction of that money in terms of energy efficiency in this country.
A few months ago, The Progressive reported on how Scandinavia has reduced its use of fossil fuels. For example, Sweden is turning the 185,000 gallons of smuggled alcohol that its customs service confiscates each year into biofuel. That country is also processing meatpacking plant waste, food scraps and other materials into biofuel for buses, taxis, garbage trucks and even a methane-powered "biogas train."
Ulf Perbo, the head of BIL Sweden, the national automobile industry association, told The Progressive that, "it's not in our interest to be dependent on oil, with regard to the production and sales of cars. Oil is not what interests us, cars are. And oil is going to be a limitation in the future."
That's why all Swedish gas stations are required by law to offer at least one alternative fuel and why 1 in 5 cars in Stockholm run at least partially on biofuels. Imagine if our Congress made a similar mandate, and American automakers had to start making more electric-hybrid vehicles that ran on biofuels.
The Swedish government has offered financial incentives to get households to switch from oil heat to environmentally-friendly heating. Sweden was the first nation in the world to adopt a "carbon tax." And it now imposes a "congestion tax" in Stockholm - tolls on vehicles entering the city to encourage the use of public transit. As a result, about half of Sweden's income tax burden has been phased out in favor of taxes based on fossil fuel consumption.
While Sweden unfortunately depends on nuclear power for half of its electricity, Denmark has made a big push into wind energy, and gets up to a third of its electricity from wind turbines. By contrast, the United States gets only 0.25 percent of its electricity from wind.
The Danes also are big on weatherization, with building codes that require lots of insulation and tightly sealed windows. As result, Denmark's heating bill fell 20 percent from 1975 to 2001, even while the amount of space being heated rose during that period by 30 percent.
For those who still believe energy conservation means living a pinched lifestyle, Denmark's gross domestic product has doubled over the past 30 years while the nation's energy use has been stable during that time.
If you want to drive a Hummer H2 in Denmark, you can - if you are willing to pay. The Danish government imposes a registration tax of up to 180 percent of the purchase price on gas-guzzling vehicles, so the prospective Hummer owner would pay more than $80,000 in taxes to buy and drive one.
All these ideas get shouted down in this country. The discussion on biofuels begins and ends with corn-based ethanol, the most wasteful and energy-intensive fuel out there. Without tax incentives, wind and solar energy are non-starters, but Congress has had no qualms about giving tax breaks to the oil and coal companies. And nuclear power is touted as a "clean and green" source of energy, while the radioactive waste and huge government subsidies it receives are swept under the rug.
Other nations are getting serious about reducing fossil fuel use, while the United States falls further behind. Other nations are taking the lead in research and development and innovation, while Congress is held hostage by the energy and auto lobbies.
And if you're saying that Scandinavia is a piddling importance on the world economic stage, how about this example. The Washington Post reported that Japan, which relies on imports for nearly 100 percent of its fuel, now imports 16 percent less oil today than it did in 1973, even though the size of the economy has doubled since then. How? By investing billions into energy efficiency and building non-oil electric generation plants powered by natural gas, coal, nuclear energy or alternative fuels.
Japan accounts for 48 percent of the world's solar power generation, compared to just 15 percent for the United States. Fluorescent light bulbs account for 80 percent of Japan's lighting, compared to 6 percent for the United States.
Far from destroying the economy, a concerted effort toward reducing energy use and coming up with alternative sources would create new jobs and keep our dollars in this country instead of going to Russia or Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Quite simply, the biggest challenge to our nation right now isn't terrorism. It is changing our relationship with energy. The rising cost and growing scarcity of petroleum has reached crisis proportions. It's going to take a concerted effort at all levels of government and at every sector of our society to deal with it. The choice is do something now while there's time, or wait until it's too late.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.