We can not coast (or snark) our way to victory.
And while we can and should point out that we'll do better, the American public's tolerance for vague hand waving and nonsensical platitudes is getting very thin (see Bush's poll ratings). We have to offer something more than hollow rhetoric and political posturing.
We need to pick an issue where we can clearly delineate our approach from the Republican mismanagement. Something that has a broad effect on the public, and something that allows us to be both bold and visionary.
Only one such issue is available: energy.
My intention in this diary is not to give more statistics on the energy industry, or to bring out the latest in hybrid cars, or even to talk about alternative sources of fuel. Instead, I'd like to take a crack at turning ideas into policy.
We know what we want. Now how do we get it?
At a high level, it's easy enough for us to state the things we want in an energy policy. An ideal policy would provide better national security by limiting our dependence on increasing scarce foreign supplies of oil. It would protect the environment, by reducing emissions of pollutants (including greenhouse gases) and not require the sacrifice of all our wild places on the altar of a few weeks more energy. And ideal policy would actually generate capital and new jobs, by encouraging companies to develop new technologies and techniques to both create and conserve energy.
Can we all agree that's a good start for a policy: improve national security, preserve the environment, create jobs?
But what does this policy look like? It can't resemble the Bush energy plan, which does nothing but perpetuate the status quo. In fact, the Bush plan is a loser on all three points. By their own admission, it will actually increase our dependence on foreign oil, target more wild spaces for development, and do little to develop new alternative energy industries. It's a lose-lose-lose proposition.
There are many preferable plans available. For example, The Apollo Alliance has lined up a staggering amount of support behind the idea of alternative energy sources. You want a real shocker? Go watch their video of The Unite Mine Workers president(.WMV) voicing his support for alternative sources. There are even lessons to be learned from Set America Free, no matter what you think about some of their founders. In fact, the existence of both organizations shows how the idea of real reform in our energy policy is now something that spans the ideological spectrum -- regardless of Bush's "please sir, more of the same" approach.
The trouble, even with these two, is that their approach is still too broad. Yes, 9 in 10 Americans support a crash effort to reduce demand for Middle East oil. That's great, but what does it mean? What are the real proposals on the table that will meet the goals we set out above: better security, better environment, better jobs.
So, forget the broad statements. Forget your personal favorite gadget. And forget the unrealistic diatribes about how if we'd just roll back 50 years of suburban flight, everything would be okay. Think instead about how you would write legislation to successfully, realistically, move the nation forward.
I'll give you my ideas. I'd very much appreciate seeing yours in return.
1) The Automotive Mileage Credit Act
Forget CAFE standards. Forget them. First off, Republicans have been able to hammer any attempt to change the CAFE standards as an attempt to limit what vehicles Americans can buy. Secondly, auto makers have been able to rejigger the numbers by creative classification of their vehicles (that's how car sales in the United States managed to decline from 11 million to fewer than 8 million in the last five years, while "vehicle" sales topped 15 million). So stop playing a losing game of trying to make the manufacturers do what they want to do. Instead, put the carrot directly in front of the consumers and let them set the pace.
Here's how it works: an immediate and direct rebate of $200 to the consumer for every MPG their new vehicle falls above the national average. Right now, the combined fleet gets in the neighborhood of 19 MPG. So, you go out and buy a new Ford 500 or Hyundai Sonata, you get nada. Opt instead for a Chevy Malibu LS, that's $600 off the top. A Saturn Ion (note that I'm making no statement on the quality of the cars) nets a $1200 rebate. Go for a Honda Civic DX getting 32 MPG, and you'll see a fat $2600 off the price. Make that a Civic hybrid at 48MPG, and you'll see $5800 -- enough to make up the initial difference in hybrid cost.
So what's so good about this program that makes it better than current rebates on hybrids? First, it doesn't discriminate. You got a cool turbo-biodiesel that gets 60MPG? That'll work. Roll out those fuel cells, boys, the water's fine (though we may have to set a cap on the rebate). The current program on hybrids requires artificial distinctions on what's good technology and what's bad. It also doesn't discriminate by body style. You want to roam in a rolling barcolounger backed by three tons of steel, that's your own beeswax, but you're paying for it. Pay for the results, not the gadget, and let's see how creative people can be. Finally, this is a program that can be run endlessly without losing its value. Just adjust the numbers at the start of each year and let people shoot at the new (hopefully higher) target.
Estimated cost for this program: $5 billion per year. This assumes 2/3rds of cars sold are above average and that those cars average 5MPG over the national average. If everyone went out and bought only vehicles that got great mileage, we'd pay more -- and be very glad to do so.
Bonus points: If you want to add a stick to this carrot, you could start penalizing people who buy vehicles that fall below the average. However, I'm agin' it. I don't think it will effect behavior (someone who is going to spend $60,000 on a Hummer is not about to be deterred by a $1200 penalty), it won't raise enough money to fund the program, and it will be used by the right to hammer this program as an attack on "soccer moms," or "security moms," or whatever they're calling them this week.
2) The Federal 55 Act
This one is just what it sounds like: restore the 55MPH speed limit for all vehicles on federal interstate highways.
I know you hate it. I hate it. We all hate it. However, this one act would immediately cut almost 10% off our oil consumption. If you've got something else that can do that without requiring billions of investment and years of development, I'd like to hear it.
Want to see OPEC shake in their boots? Want to see the price of gas plummet? Bring back the 55MPH speed limit. Of course, it's not a long term solution (or even a short term solution), but it is an effective, immediate step to cut consumption.
Americans have said they're willing to sacrifice. This is a visible, tangible, example of sacrifice. It something that everyone in the automotive public shares. It's tough minded, but fair. Do it.
Bonus points: allow vehicles that get above a certain MPG (say, 30MPG above the national average) to go 65MPH. Tons of people who wouldn't buy a high mileage car because of the rebate, would line up to buy one if it let them go faster than those slugs in the right lane. Laugh at the Cadillac Escalade as you slide past in your Smart ForTwo.
3) The Clean Generation Act
This one comes in several parts. First, reverse the effect of the Bush "Clear Skies" program by enforcing regulations that require older coal-burning plants to either clean up their acts, or close. Re-introduce the strict timetable for future reductions in emissions. If they don't make it: fine the hell out of them.
Then require that all utility companies generate 10% of all their power from renewable, non-polluting sources by 2020. Make it 20% by 2040. Don't tell them it has to be wind, or solar, or tidal. Just that it has to be clean. Let them figure out what works best in their area. If they don't make it: see above.
Institute a trading system for "renewable source credits," as is now done for SO2 certificates. However, limit the trade of clean energy credits to a region so that we don't end up with clean energy sources near the big population centers and a "dirty middle." This is the carrot in a program that's more stick-driven. Companies that get really clean can profit from their lazier neighbors.
Bonus points: add biofuels to the mix by allowing burning of fuels sourced from rapidly replenished biological sources. Don't give these sources the same credit as wind, solar, or hydro, but rate them significantly below fossil fuels.
4) The Standard Nuclear Power Act
Expand nuclear power by allowing only plants conforming to a standard, intrinsically safe design. Ensure that uniform planning, site evaluation, disposal, and operations are carried out to best ensure environmental, worker safety, and general public safety.
As a carrot, promise utilities that follow the strict guidelines accelerated plant approval. It's possible these plants could even become "commodities."
Bonus points: allow nuclear plants to play in the "clean energy exchange," but rate their total waste production, including low yield waste, as toxic discharge.
There you go. There's absolutely nothing new in what I've written -- and that's exactly the point. If we want a real "Apollo Program" for energy, we won't get there by either setting vague goals, or by trying to define the process and hoping it leads to the solution. These are four ideas that don't demand the use of any one technology, but which encourage innovation. Four ways to drive results instead of getting lost in the journey.
I think all four ideas would be terrific improvements for the nation. Better than that, I think candidates who embraced such ideas would go a long way to proving that they have substance, and aren't just mouthing "we can do better." I'll take one good energy plan over 1,000 repetitions of "a culture of corruption," no matter how keen you think the later looks on a T-shirt.
Now, nitpick away, and give me some of your own ways to turn our energy dreams into both public good, and Election Day gold. Please.