Back in 2006, George W. Bush declared that the US is “addicted to oil.” Since then, that phrase has been repeated ad nauseam by politicos on both the left and the right. But on Tuesday night, President Obama took the addiction trope to an entirely new level of inanity by saying “For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels.”
That sentence may cheer campaigners working for Greenpeace, but it demonstrates both the extreme poverty of our energy discussions and our politicians’ refusal to acknowledge the essential role that hydrocarbons play in the global economy.
By using the word “addiction” Obama implies that our consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas is somehow dirty, that we lack self-control, self-respect, or that we are somehow diseased. And of course, just as the recovering addict becomes a new man/woman, the America that frees itself from the evils of hydrocarbons will be made stronger and more employable. “The transition to clean energy,” Obama said, “has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs.”
But forget about the president’s choice of words and consider, for just a moment, the math: nine out of ten units of energy consumed in the US and the rest of the world come from fossil fuels. On an average day, US consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas amounts to 41 million barrels of oil equivalent. That’s equal to the average daily oil output of five Saudi Arabias. Where will the US find such a huge amount of energy – and all of it carbon-free? Obama didn’t have that answer. Instead, he vaguely referred to the “scientists and researchers” who are “discovering clean energy technologies that someday will lead to entire new industries.”
That might be true – someday — but entrepreneurs have been searching for a replacement for oil for decades. Despite many billions of dollars in investment, nothing comes close to oil in terms of flexibility, cost, or convenience. Despite that long history of failure to find a replacement for oil, Obama is now claiming that we not only need to replace oil, but we need to replace natural gas and coal, too. And he made that claim without ever using the words “global warming” or “carbon dioxide.”
Obama’s speech on Tuesday night revealed a political agenda that aims to use the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico as a rationale to pass an energy bill through Congress that includes some form of cap-and-trade that will increase consumers’ energy costs. Where’s the popular appeal for such an energy tax? There is none, not at a time when the US unemployment rate is near 10 percent and one in seven American homeowners with a mortgage is either delinquent or facing foreclosure.
Even more surprising (and disappointing) in Obama’s speech was the fact that he used the phrase “clean energy” six times, but did not once mention the fuels of the future: natural gas and nuclear. That’s a stunning omission given that those two sources offer the best near-term, low- or no-carbon options for the US and the rest of the world.
Obama’s speech reveals a president who is under intense political pressure to do something, anything, so that he can appear to be in control of a blowout that the government is incapable of stopping on its own. Rather than admit that the government must rely on BP to stop the blowout, rather than acknowledge the irreplaceable role that hydrocarbons play in the global energy economy, he fell back onto the hackneyed claim about “addiction.” Here’s the reality: we are not addicted to oil. Nor are we addicted to fossil fuels. We are addicted to prosperity.
ROBERT BRYCE’s latest book is Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.