Albert Gore and Straw Men

Published September 1, 2000

Do you know anyone who argues there is a trade off between our economy and environment? Do you know anyone who believes dirty power plants are inevitable and we should accept them? Have you ever met anyone who contends electric generators must waste energy? I haven’t.

How many people do you know who dismiss modern environmentalism as somehow outside the American mainstream? Do you know anyone who advocates clinging to timid, old ways of thinking and says we simply need to accept air pollution so that we can drive our cars? I know no one like that.

Vice President Albert Gore and I must travel in different circles. Apparently he’s met lots of people who suggest it’s important for us to adopt old, timid policies. He referred to such “dinosaurs” many times in a speech he gave in Philadelphia on June 27, where he introduced his ideas concerning future energy policy.

Another thing that struck me about the Gore speech was his pose of running as an outsider rather than an incumbent responsible for energy policy during the last seven-and-a-half years. You remember about eight years ago, don’t you, when candidates Clinton and Gore vowed to wean the U.S. from its dependence on foreign oil? Today, we use much more imported oil than we did then, and our reliance approaches 60 percent versus 50 percent when they took office.

We also import vast quantities of natural gas from Canada and Mexico. The American Gas Association runs ads declaring our energy independence based on use of “North American” natural gas. Apparently it’s OK to import energy so long as the exporter is not separated from us by an ocean.

Actually, I have no problem with importing energy from anyone under any circumstances so long as that energy is being put to beneficial use in the United States. This is fairly standard economic thinking, and has been since Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have an energy policy that promotes utilization of U.S. energy resources. Clearly, we should. But to the extent we impede development of U.S. energy resources—as President Clinton and Vice President Gore have done during the last seven-and-a-half years—by definition we are going to import more energy from abroad, since our society continues to grow and to use more energy.

Last time I checked, we had an awful lot of coal in the United States, like 450 years worth. A Democratic President in the 1970s named Jimmy Carter went so far as to say we ought to rely on U.S. coal to achieve energy independence. That’s where today’s, modern coal-fired power plants came from and why we mine close to one billion tons of coal in the U.S. each year. These coal-fired power plants have provided and are providing electric energy to fuel our fabulous and growing economy while American companies lead the way toward a “wired world.”

But this is happening no thanks to the people who run the Executive Branch. They want to reverse this trend and shut down those power plants. They advocate importing more energy from abroad, including even more natural gas from our neighbors to the north and south. Importing energy isn’t bad, but if we can produce energy for less money here, why import it at greater cost?

The ideas on energy Gore advanced amidst his sprinkling of straw men are not entirely bad. If we have national pollution problems (which we do in some areas) then it is appropriate for the federal government to advance federal funds in the form of tax credits, loans, grants, and the like to clean up pollution because such pollution is a problem for society, in general.

But we need to educate the Vice President about supply-side solutions to current energy problems—including the importation of large amounts of expensive, foreign oil and natural gas. In order for our country to go forward, supply-side solutions need to be a part of any reasonable, economic framework. This is an area where he has obvious blind spots. Our world is awash in energy. It is simply a matter of price and the systems to get it to where people can use it.

Part of our current problem is government and its attitude toward supply-side solutions. Gore is no friend of the supply side, yet he clearly is imaginative in his thinking. He is able willy-nilly to conjure up straw men to bear blame when he should share in it. So maybe he can find his way to a supply-side way of thinking so that our society can continue to grow and prosper.

We are more than anxious to join the administration in devising solutions to problems of pollution and supply so that Americans can wean themselves from dependence on foreign oil, continue to grow the economy, and fulfill our destiny to wire the world.

Fredrick Palmer, in addition to being president of Greening Earth Society, is general manager and chief executive officer of Western Fuels Association Inc., a not-for-profit fuel supply cooperative comprised of consumer-owned electric utilities.