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Ways & Means

A New Apollo Project

While Congress stalls on energy reform, labor points the way

by Carl Pope

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any more frightening, Congress started debating national energy policy again. Why should we be scared?

Because ever since Lyndon Johnson used Texas oil money to lubricate his political rise, energy policy has been about pork and politics—not the environment, the economy, or even national security. Despite the fact that our current policy of near total dependence on fossil fuels has caused repeated supply shortages and price spikes (not to mention three economic crises, two oilfield wars, and global warming), Washington remains mired in the same old mistakes that brought us here.

A major element of the Senate’s "comprehensive" energy bill, for example, was a proposal to double the use of ethanol as a gasoline additive. No proof was cited that more of the corn-based supplement was needed, but who needs proof when you’re talking about pumping an extra $1.3 billion into the politically powerful farm belt? And so much for states’ rights: An amendment to allow states to opt out of the ethanol diktat was defeated.

Supporters tout ethanol as "renewable," but it takes the equivalent of 70 percent of the energy in a gallon of ethanol to fertilize, harvest, transport, and distill it. (Efficiency like that could give renewability a bad name.) Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the proposal a "wealth transfer" to corn-producing states from the rest of the country, but she and other dissenters were overwhelmed by farm-state senators of both parties, as well as the recipients of campaign largesse from Archer Daniels Midland, the biggest producer of ethanol. Thus the backing of those senators for the overall energy bill was secured, upholding a long congressional tradition of using energy legislation to feather private and regional nests, whatever the costs.

Gulf War II produced the usual denunciations of the nation’s dependence on imported oil. But beyond the bogus ethanol initiative, the only thing the Senate did about it was to begin dismantling the moratoriums that have kept oil rigs off the coasts of California, the Pacific Northwest, Florida, and the Carolinas for up to 20 years. Senators spurned entreaties to commit to producing a modest 10 percent of our electricity supply from real renewable energy—wind and solar—and instead lavished billions of federal dollars in new subsidies on the oil, coal, and nuclear industries. The Senate also proposed dramatically increasing federal backing for a new generation of nuclear reactors, including public-loan guarantees for a half-dozen new nuclear power plants.

Simultaneously, the White House described as "deeply troubling" a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran appeared to be using its domestic nuclear power industry as a platform to develop nuclear weapons. This shouldn’t have been a surprise: Every nuclear proliferation threat to date—from Iraq, Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan—has been preceded by a "peaceful" nuclear power plant. Wouldn’t reviving the nuclear power industry in this country likely encourage even more nations to take the first step toward developing nuclear weapons of their own? No one in the White House seemed even mildly troubled by the possibility.

While Washington addresses our energy problems by catering to Big Corn, Big Coal, Big Oil, and Big Nuke, real leadership is bubbling up elsewhere. In June, the heads of ten major labor unions, including the United Auto Workers, the Steelworkers, and the Mine Workers, called for a new "Apollo Project" to revitalize blue-collar America and our industrial base by investing $300 billion in energy innovation and increased efficiency—including hybrid cars, retrofitted buildings, solar cells, wind turbines, mass transit, cleaned-up power plants, and more-efficient factories.

After the loss of over 2 million manufacturing jobs in the last two years, says Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, it’s time to try something new: "We believe this plan can create good manufacturing jobs, good construction jobs, can improve the public infrastructure, can be good for the environment, and can reduce our dependence on foreign energy." The plan’s authors estimate it could generate 3 million new industrial jobs, and turn the Rust Belt into a global hub for hydrogen and hybrid cars, while simultaneously improving the environment, decreasing the trade deficit, and reducing our dependence on imported oil. A new poll shows strong heartland support for such an approach, with 73 percent of the public, and more than 80 percent of blue-collar men, backing it.

The Apollo Project sets the right goals, but it would require a substantial commitment of public funds to achieve them. If the public is going to pay the bill, it’s essential we make it clear to the industries involved that we must break with the past. Speeding the renewable-energy future will require tough, enforceable regulations as well as technology and financial commitments. Surely mistakes will be made, but at least they’ll be leading us in the right direction, not repeating the same sorry old story of pollution and payoffs.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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