Bush’s State of the Union: no energy U-turn

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Contrary to expectations, US President George W. Bush’s energy and climate-change policy will not drastically alter. His promise to reduce US petrol consumption by 20% in ten years hinges on major technological breakthroughs.

President Bush’s new energy proposals, however, failed to deliver on these expectations. His numerous proposals – summarised under the catchy title “Twenty in ten” (20% petrol consumption reduction withing the next 10 years) – are first and foremost an answer to the American “energy security” issue than to global-warming concerns. In fact, there was hardly any mention of climate change in the speech.

President Bush wants to achieve his 20% reduction of projected (=by 2017)  petrol use through:

  • massive increase in the use of alternative fuels (mainly ethanol) by 2017: the current target (set in the US Energy Policy Act of 2005) of 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2012, is increased to 35 billion gallons, and;
  • strengthening of the federal fuel-economy standards by raising the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks by 4% more each year.

The third proposal in Bush’s plans is a doubling of US Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) by 2027.  Currently, the US SPR is at 691 million barrels, representing about 55 days of net oil imports. President Bush wants to raise this reserve to 1.5 billion barrels by 2027. This would provide 97 days of protection in case of a major supply interruption. Under EU rules, member states need to have a 90-day minimum of oil reserves. 

There were no new ideas on combatting the greenhouse gas emissions of power plants and households (representing around two-thirds of the US’ global-warming contribution) in President Bush’s speech. His administration has committed itself to cut the greenhouse gas intensity (the ratio of GHGs emissions to economic output expressed in GDP) by 18% before the year 2012. The US is putting most of its climate-change efforts towards technology development. It invests $29 billion in climate-related science and technology  programmes. 

The State of the Union's energy proposals met with scepticism from many stakeholders and media.

The influential Pew Center on Global Climate Change, one of the members of the recently formed business-NGO USCAP  climate-action partnership, criticised the proposals for falling "short of actually reducting greenhouse gas emissions". 

"No specific proposals were offered to deal with emissions from other key sectors such as electricity generation, manufacturing, or buildings. Given the calls for action from CEOs, religious leaders, state and local governments and the general public, it's unfortunate that the president missed this opportunity to outline a meaningful, comprehensive proposal to deal with climate change," said Pew President Eileen Claussen.

Darcey Rakestraw, of environmental concern group Worldwatch Institute, expressed disappointment at Bush's speech: "The president's speech came a day after CEOs of leading US corporations called for a mandatory 'cap' on US emissions, but it is clear the administration is still not ready to take the lead on an issue it has stubbornly refused to address for the last six years. So, once again, it is up to Congress to pass the kind of strong new legislation that will allow the United States to catch up with the policies being enacted by other nations - and by many US states."

The Union of Concerned Scientists hailed Mr Bush's commitment to increase the gas mileage of cars, but warned that the alternative fuels for transport should not include coal-to-liquids. "If alternative fuels are made from coal instead of renewable resources, the president will not meet his stated goal of stopping the projected growth in carbon dioxide emissions from cars, light trucks and SUVs. Instead of cutting global warming pollution, making gasoline or diesel from coal would double the amount of global-warming pollution produced from gasoline today."

The New York Times  pointed to the obstacles for the ethanol proposals. "Mr Bush's goal for ethanol would require big advances in "cellulosic ethanol" a form of ethanol made from plants such as switchgrass that has yet to be produced at anything close to competitive prices. It could also require up to 40 million additional acres devoted to growing the plant material involved as well as a sprawling new infrastructure for transforming the feedstock into fuel," writes the NYT.

The same newspaper also quoted American Democrat Senator Jeff Bingaman (the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee) who said that Mr Bush was "completely silent" on energy efficiency and reduction of carbon dioxide from electric power plants.

 

Two weeks after the European Commission presented its "energy - climate change package" as a response to the twin challenge of energy security and global warming, Bush proposed his new ideas to deal with the same issues in his annual State of the Union speech to the new American Congress.

In the run-up to the President's speech, some European and US media had raised expectations that the President might move towards a U-turn on climate change as the result of pressure from his European allies, from several American state leaders (such as Californian Governor Schwarzenegger), and from important Republican congressmen (such as presidential candidate John McCain). 

The new Democratic majority in the Congress and increasing climate-change concerns from major American corporates (see EURACTIV 23 Jan 2007) would hopefully make the President revise his climate change stance, according to some observers.

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