Barack Obama celebrated his 47th birthday Monday by making a big wish: Within a decade, he wants the United States to be so energy efficient and so rife with new clean-energy technologies that it would no longer need to import oil from the Middle East and Venezuela. If that goal seems almost absurdly ambitious, at least the Democratic presidential candidate doesn’t shirk from saying so. He called breaking our oil addiction among the greatest challenges of this generation, an effort akin to winning World War II or putting a man on the moon.
Unfortunately, there is a direct correlation between the prominence of energy as a campaign issue and the price of gasoline. If history is any guide, the zeal of both Obama and Republican contender John McCain for reducing our reliance on foreign oil will vanish when or if pump prices drop significantly. Still, it’s refreshing to hear a candidate put this country’s energy challenges into proper perspective, give them the high priority they have long lacked and tell Americans the truth about what it will take to overcome them.
This isn’t to say that Obama has all the answers. Some of his proposals, in fact, would be counterproductive. He favors recovering more oil from domestic shale deposits, a spectacularly polluting process. He also wants to send working families a $1,000 “energy rebate” funded by new taxes on oil companies, a move that would slow the oil giants’ investments in research, exploration and recovery and thus could ultimately cause oil prices to rise even further.
Obama nonetheless is right about energy more often than he’s wrong, and also is right more often than McCain. The latter, once an opponent of offshore oil drilling, now talks about little else, even though it would have no short-term effect on oil prices and would wreck pristine coastlines, exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions and do almost nothing to reduce the need for oil imports.
Obama is correct that the U.S. must make its cars, buildings and appliances more energy-efficient. It must get more of its electricity from renewable sources such as the wind and the sun, and it must modernize the grid to handle these new sources. It must invest more in sustainable biofuels such as cellulosic (not corn-derived) ethanol, and it must come up with a way to make carbon emitters pay for their pollution.
Ending our oil addiction will be an immense struggle, and Obama deserves credit for pointing out that we must first admit we have a problem, then commit to solving it. GOP leaders -- lately including McCain, who was once more environmentally responsible -- simply want to give the country another fix. That might win votes, but it will improve nothing.