RMI offers alternatives to Bush’s drilling plans
March 21, 2002
President Bush’s national energy policy gives a green light to drilling rigs in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and 52,000-pound “thumper trucks” rumbling outside of Arches National Park in search of oil.
The folks at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass figured Americans might like to know that alternatives exist.
RMI gambled this winter that it could present an alternative vision that promotes secure, abundant and affordable ways to fulfill the country’s energy needs. The renowned “think-and-do” tank secured funding from a handful of foundations, then assembled some of the top energy experts in the country for a brainstorming session in February.
The conference was a risk for RMI because it served strictly as a conduit.
“We did that intentionally so it wouldn’t look like RMI was cooking the outcome,” said founder and CEO Amory Lovins.
Neither the organization nor its donors could try to influence the discussion or slant the conclusions. If the final report promoted polices that RMI could not support, so be it.
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The risk was worth it, said Lovins, because the project, called the National Energy Policy Initiative, has the potential to shape, or at least influence, the national debate.
The Senate is locked in an ongoing debate that includes such weighty issues as whether the 5 percent of public lands that are off limits to oil and gas drilling should be opened.
“It’s a difficult time to talk about energy in Washington,” said Lovins. “Partisan rancor” tends to sift people and reports into one camp or another.
But the NEP Initiative has managed to avoid being pigeonholed. The 21 energy experts who participated had diverse backgrounds, including some top advisors to the major oil companies. However, no advocacy groups were allowed to play.
The experts’ energy policy recommendations happened to go hand-in-hand with many of RMI’s independent initiatives. The significance of domestic oil production, a linchpin of the Bush administration’s policy, was downplayed.
“Remaining U.S. oil reserves are limited and relatively expensive to exploit,” the Nation Energy Policy Initiative report said. “More fundamentally, increased domestic production of oil and gas would not decrease the economy’s vulnerability to oil price shocks, because oil is a commodity traded in world markets and a supply disruption anywhere will affect prices everywhere.
“Therefore, it is unlikely that increased domestic production of oil and gas from Alaska or the lower 48 states can significantly reduce our growing vulnerability to disruption of foreign supplies.”
RMI has independently criticized the Bush administration’s direction. Lovins said the oil industry considers the U.S. a mature market where big strikes are unlikely. In addition, the industry realizes that removing oil from places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is expensive.
He cited a New York Times article that explained how big oil companies are not actively promoting drilling in the refuge because the cost is high and uneconomic, given the supply glut elsewhere and prospects for low prices.
“If they believe in sustained high prices, they’d be drilling everywhere,” said Lovins.
So why does the Bush administration promote drilling in places like the far corners of Alaska? Lovins said he could only assume it was lack of knowledge of some market realities or political paybacks.
It appears that the only way an oil company could make drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge pay off is through government subsidization. “Bingo,” said Lovins.
The experts convened for the NEP Initiative didn’t dwell on flaws in current policy. They offered alternatives.
Instead of domestic drilling, the report recommends immediately reducing the oil dependence of the U.S. and its key allies, especially in transportation.
Lovins said the report promotes options “innovative enough to get by the trench warfare.” For example, rather than wading into the political swamp of government-required fuel-efficiency standards, the report recommends a “feebate” system where buyers of gas-guzzling vehicles pay a higher sales tax that gets plowed back into rebates for buyers of gas sippers.
Rebates for scrapping old gas guzzlers and replacing them with more fuel-efficient vehicles was also promoted. Lovins said he has supported that concept since the 1970s, despite criticism that it helps automakers.
“I don’t mind helping the automakers if we get efficient cars on the road,” he said.
The NEP Initiative report concentrates on the issues of transportation, electricity services, energy security, climate change, and research, development and demonstration.
The extensive findings are available on the Internet at http://www.nepinitiative.org.
“It is within our power to create an energy system that is much more secure, more much affordable, and much less environmentally damaging,” the report said. “What is needed is leadership – both bold and prudent, both visionary and practical – to begin a decades-long energy transition with immediate action.”
There are signs that political leaders have embraced the alternative vision for a national energy policy. The report was unveiled in Washington, D.C., last week by U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
It also has bipartisan support, with an endorsement coming from U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Energy.
“We would like it to be incorporated in the national energy debate in all venues,” said Lovins.