Despite two presidential candidates who claim to exude bipartisan appeal, our nation has come to the eve of another election as bitterly divided as ever. The real surprise, however, is that we’re no longer nursing grudges over old favorites like race and religion or the war in Iraq; even 2004’s most successful wedge issue, gay marriage, has remained on the shelf despite months of same-sex weddings that were green-lighted last spring by the California Supreme Court. Instead, in a year in which America earned a measure of redemption for centuries of racial division and injustice, we’re suddenly learning how to hate one another over energy.
At first blush, the energy issue seemed unlikely to dominate this election cycle, principally because Barack Obama and John McCain are almost two peas in a pod on global warming and its remedies. But give George W. Bush his due; when it comes to identifying the hot-button issues that divide us, our approval-challenged president is no lame duck. How else to explain the gusher of vitriol that erupted when he announced in mid-June that the first step to energy independence was lifting a ban on oil exploration in the waters off our coasts? Never mind that president George H.W. Bush had signed that ban back in 1990 and that Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, still supported it. Republicans rallied behind the president as if it were the run-up to the Iraq war. McCain, whose concession that “global warming is a real problem” had deeply chagrined the talk radio set, finally became a hero to the chattering right when he quickly flip-flopped on his long-standing opposition to offshore drilling. Obama, by contrast, waited more than a month, with opinion polls showing that Americans favored drilling almost two to one, before he announced he would accept a carefully “circumscribed” drilling strategy. By the time the two gymnasts had more or less landed back on the same page, Obama appeared to be out of touch with American workers fuming at $4 per gallon gas, while McCain, who angrily shouted, “We’re gonna drill here, and we’re gonna drill now!” to a revved-up biker rally, seemed to share their outrage.
If McCain does upset Obama this November, he can thank his opponent and the Democrats for their inexcusable loss of the political center on an issue that should have been proprietary after seven years of the GOP’s global-warming-denying, enemies-enriching, big-oil-coddling energy policies. But no matter who wins the election, America is going to remain a house deeply divided over energy policy. That’s because unlike all those “values” debates that don’t really affect our behavior (that’s what popular culture is for), our answer to the energy question will change everything. The policy we choose over the next few years won’t just determine whether we drive cars powered by gas or electricity, or live in larger or smaller homes that are farther from or closer to urban centers, or eat food that’s grown in our neighborhoods instead of flown across the globe. The next president is going to have to place an energy-policy wager on our future as a world power.
Of course, the American people already know that this energy crisis is different. Weeks before the president spoke, car buyers abruptly dumped Ford’s brawny F-series of pickups, America’s best-selling vehicles over the past 31 years (and a garage fixture in Texas, where trucks sell at twice the national rate), in favor of a petite new number one, the Honda Civic. This time what’s standing between us and energy security isn’t OPEC but BRIC, the muscular new economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Flush with cash, consumers in these growing giants are rapidly acquiring the same peripatetic, energy-hungry lifestyles Americans have enjoyed for generations; it’s estimated that by 2015 China will have more cars on the road than we will.
World energy demand is expected to rise by 50 percent over the next two decades, but the supply of oil is at best flatlining, with only the most cockeyed optimists saying we will reach peak oil, the point where global output begins to decline, within the next three decades. Already, the remaining oil is heavier and buried deeper—often requiring costly “enhanced” recovery to bring it out of the ground—and access to it is increasingly controlled by dictatorial, destabilizing regimes, some of which sponsor terrorist groups. Then there’s global warming; despite the best efforts of the still-thriving denial industry, it’s hard to find a serious thinker who doesn’t believe that we’ll inevitably have the kind of cap-and-trade system favored by both Obama and McCain—which means that consumers of fossil fuels will soon find themselves paying a covert “carbon tax” to producers of clean energy. We’ve gone from $9-per-barrel oil in 1999—a historic low when adjusted for inflation—to an era in which $80 per barrel already represents the good ol’ days.
You’d think, then, that one thing all Americans could agree on is that we need to end the oil “addiction” President Bush pointed out in his 2006 State of the Union, in what was regarded as a striking reversal of his administration’s insistence that all those gas-guzzling SUVs commuting to outer-ring suburbs and exurbs represented a “blessed” lifestyle. Instead, in a nation where “energy independence” has become a rallying cry, we have a rapidly widening partisan divide over how we’re going to get there—and how we expect to live when we do.
The principal point of contention between the two parties can be summed up as renewable energy versus unconventional oil, a wonkish distinction that nevertheless means—literally—all the difference in the world. Democrats are essentially betting that rapid innovation, government subsidies, and economies of scale can accelerate the adoption of sustainable energy sources: wind, solar, geothermal, and biofuels. But if offshore drilling currently headlines the GOP energy strategy, in the long term it’s really just a sideshow.
As Bush noted in his June address, drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf might yield 18 billion barrels of oil—ten years’ worth of