'Energy Independence Day': Take Two
As Democrats solidified their control of Congress in early 2007, the newly empowered leadership pledged to â€śtruly declare our energy independenceâ€ť by July 4, 2007.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) announced she would create a panel on energy independence, â€śaccelerate the implementation of existing clean, energy-efficient technologies,â€ť invest in domestic alternatives and â€śsend our energy dollars to the Midwest not the Middle East.â€ť
The broadcast networks â€“ ABC, CBS and NBC â€“ have mentioned â€śenergy independenceâ€ť more than 60 times since Pelosi first made her â€śEnergy Independence Dayâ€ť pledge in January 2007.
But one year later, gas is more expensive than ever â€“ up 85 percent, from $2.21 the day Pelosi promised â€śEnergy Independence Dayâ€ť to $4.09 on July 2, 2008. Ethanol has been revealed as a grand mistake contributing to rising food prices in the U.S. and shortages in poorer parts of the world. And politicians continue to block expansion of domestic drilling that would ease supply strains and bring jobs to the United States, while pursuing fruitless investigations of â€śBig Oil.â€ť
While the media continue to hype politiciansâ€™ pledges to work toward â€śenergy independence,â€ť they have failed to keep those elected officials accountable. The networks tied energy independence to Democrats or Pelosi in only half of the 64 stories.
â€śEnergy Independence Dayâ€ť seems no closer in 2008 than it did in 2007.
In May 2007, Pelosi reiterated the pledge to declare July 4 â€śEnergy Independence Day,â€ť promising a legislative package that would â€śdevelop and use clean alternative fuels,â€ť invest in ethanol and â€śencourage an energy innovation economy that will create new jobs and help small business.â€ť
â€śYears of the Bush Administrationsâ€™ policies that have favored Big Oil over the consumers have resulted in record dependence on foreign oil, leaving American families and businesses to pay even higher prices,â€ť Pelosi said in a May 8, 2007, statement.
The media mantra sounds similar. To journalists, â€śenergy independenceâ€ť means capping carbon emissions, investment in alternative sources of energy â€“ even at higher costs to American consumers â€“ attacking coal and oil companies, and opposing expansion of domestic oil drilling.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) appeared on the June 18 â€śEarly Showâ€ť on CBS. He bluntly expressed his opposition to offshore drilling without opposition from another guest or co-host Harry Smith.
â€śAnother bad idea. Itâ€™s going to take 10 years to fully get that oil out of the ocean. Itâ€™s a fragile ecosystem,â€ť said Richardson. â€ś[T]his president, all he wants to do is drill, drill, drill. Thereâ€™s very little on conservation, on fuel efficiency for vehicles. Just last week the Congress failed to pass a solar tax credit. Give more incentives to renewable energy.â€ť
â€śEarly Showâ€ť co-host Harry Smith didnâ€™t challenge Richardsonâ€™s position, consult any other expert, or point out that renewable energy will also be time-consuming and costly.
The Ethanol Debacle
A common thread among â€śenergy independenceâ€ť advocates in early 2007 was investment in â€śclean alternative fuels.â€ť Pelosi alone mentioned such investment several times through several different means, including the catchy if protectionist pledge to â€śsend our dollars to the Midwest not the Middle East.â€ť
By and large, the call for investment in alternative energy was code for further dedication to ethanol, specifically corn-based ethanol that would mean a harvest of cash for Midwest farmers.
In 2007, Congress overwhelmingly passed â€“ and President Bush signed â€“ legislation that mandated 36 billion gallons of biofuels be mixed into the gasoline supply by 2022. Thatâ€™s a 380-percent increase over previous federal mandates of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012.
But the artificial growth in demand for corn to make ethanol has had a ripple effect on other parts of the economy, affecting food and other prices that, along with gas, have risen sharply in recent months.
While the media have recently started connecting ethanol to food price increases and food shortages in some parts of the world, they have largely failed to connect the increased demand for ethanol to the government mandate.
On the ABC â€śWorld News with Charles Gibsonâ€ť April 10, David Muir reported that â€śthe soaring cost of food is fueling anger and depressionâ€ť in Haiti. Rice is up 147 percent in the last year, Muir reported. Grain is up 47 percent; dairy is up 80 percent.
â€śThose biofuels are, in fact, a large part of the equation,â€ť Muir said, making him one of only three network reporters at the time to connect ethanol to the crisis. â€śMany farmers around the world who once grew wheat and rice, now grow corn and sugar cane instead, to produce ethanol.â€ť
But Muir only described ethanol as â€śa more lucrative market,â€ť rather than reporting that government mandates are what make it a more lucrative market.
Adding insult to injury, recent reports show production of ethanol is actually worse for the environment than burning fossil fuels. Environmentalists are complaining about demand for ethanol leading to deforestation of Brazilian rain forests.
Even environmentalists have abandoned calls for ethanol mandates, noting the unintended effect mandates have had on other parts of the economy. Yet the media have reported that ethanol demand is rising without explaining the artificial forces behind it. They have refused to hold politicians in Congress responsible, much less suggest a repeal of the requirements.
Price Gouging Nonsense
Politicians also set their targets on big, bad â€śBig Oilâ€ť as the new leaders in Congress pledged to go after the â€świndfallâ€ť profits enjoyed by oil companies in recent years.
Pelosi pledged investigations into allegations of price gouging and price manipulation, implying that oil companies worked together or alone to inflate the price of oil and gasoline artificially so they could make more money.
Yet politicians and the media continued to imply over the last year that oil companies were purposefully driving the price of oil higher to increase their profits. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic nominee for president, supports a â€świndfall profitsâ€ť tax on oil companies.
In February 2007, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), a former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said she wanted to â€śtake those profits and I want to put them into a strategic energy fund that will begin to fund alternative smart energy alternatives and technologies that will actually begin to move us in the direction of independence.â€ť
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the Republican presidential candidate, opposes such a tax. His Web site states, â€śA windfall profits tax on the oil companies will ultimately result in increasing our dependence on foreign oil and hinder investment in domestic exploration. Jimmy Carter put a windfall profits tax in to place with little to no useful results.â€ť
In 2005 CNN reporter Miles Oâ€™Brien said high gas prices were â€śsomething to get your blood boilingâ€ť and â€śget you a little outraged.â€ť In an Oct. 28, 2005, NBC â€śNightly Newsâ€ť report, correspondent Anne Thompson noted that Americans wanted to â€śstop shelling out wads of money to feed the profits that tonight have America fuming.â€ť
In a July 2006 interview with liberal Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, CBS host Hannah Storm asked how supporters of the free market â€ścan justify these record profits by these oil companies at a time when consumers are struggling at the pump.â€ť She allowed Kucinich to push a 100-percent â€śexcess profitsâ€ť tax without explaining how such a tax would likely make the price of gas go up.
â€śCongress is calling all the oil companies on the carpet today,â€ť ABC â€śGood Morning Americaâ€ť host Chris Cuomo reported April 1, 2008. â€śLawmakers want to know why big oil needs billions in tax breaks while posting record profits of $123 billion. Consumers want answers too.â€ť
But a March 2006 Congressional Research Service report found that the 1980 windfall profits tax resulted in $80 billion in revenue over 10 years, far below the $393 billion the government expected to bring in.
Energy analysts like Ben Lieberman at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., argue that in addition to failing to raise government revenues, windfall profits taxes actually end up hurting consumers. â€śRaising taxes further is unlikely to lower gas prices and, over the long term, may discourage the domestic energy sector from expanding supplies,â€ť Lieberman wrote in 2006.
Noticeably absent from Congressional leadersâ€™ game plan is opening up restricted areas of the United States â€“ the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) â€“ for drilling.
The media have played a prominent role in downplaying the potential benefits of drilling for oil domestically â€“ including more jobs for Americans and increased â€śenergy independenceâ€ť â€“ even though most Americans support expanding drilling in American waters.
A CBS â€śEvening Newsâ€ť report on June 18 â€“ the same day a Reuters/Zogby poll showed 59.6 percent of Americans favor a boost in domestic drilling and refinery construction â€“ highlighted â€śbipartisanâ€ť opposition to offshore drilling in California and featured no input from proponents of measures that would increase oil exploration.
The media have also latched onto a talking point used by Obama, who opposes increased drilling: it would take several years for new oil to hit the market, so itâ€™s not worth going after.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former presidential contender who now supports Obama, made news-show rounds in mid-June 2008 to criticize calls for more drilling. On the CBS â€śEarly Showâ€ť June 18, he said â€śitâ€™s going to take 10 years to fully get that oil out of the ocean.â€ť
Co-host Harry Smith didnâ€™t challenge Richardsonâ€™s argument, or note industry estimates that the oil could hit the market in 5 years, or that developing alternative energy would also take time and investment.
But supporters of new drilling argue effects would be more immediate. Cambridge Energy Research Associates analyst Daniel Yergin told NBC new drilling â€śwould send a psychological message to the world oil market, which would affect prices before any of that new oil actually started to arrive.â€ť
And pursuit of other sources of energy would mean higher fossil fuel costs in the meantime, according to proponents like Obama, who told Fortune magazine in June that â€śthere is no doubt that in the short term, adapting to this new energy economy is going to carry some costs.â€ť
Alternative energy sources also bring their own pitfalls, according to Duke Energy spokesman Tom Shiel, who told the Business & Media Institute that sources like wind and solar are inconsistent â€“ the sun goes down and the wind stops blowing â€“ and the technology to store power created by those sources isnâ€™t available yet.
Journalistsâ€™ apparent obsession with the idea of â€śenergy independenceâ€ť has prevented them from holding politicians accountable for empty or broken promises.
Left-wing politicians and the media are pushing an â€śenergy independenceâ€ť that means more government regulation of efficient sources of energy, preventing expansion of those sources of energy, and increased spending on inefficient alternatives.