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Lott and Dorgan: We Must Unify Now for a New Energy Era

Recent events across the country and around the globe — from unrest in the Middle East and North Africa to the Japanese nuclear crisis, from deep-water rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to West Virginia coal mines to Pennsylvania natural gas shale fields — remind us that every form of energy has risks, costs, benefits and liabilities. 

Yet these events are indicative of much larger global trends, including:

• Unprecedented instability in the Middle East and North Africa, which portends greater uncertainty of the global oil supply at the same time global demand for energy is skyrocketing;

• Rising long-term oil prices (again over $100 a barrel) for these reasons and as privately held reserves dwindle and nationalized reserves centered in the Middle East become the vast share of global supply; 

• New shale natural gas supplies in the U.S. and around the world are becoming available for both transport and electricity, but renewed concerns over nuclear safety could halt nuclear builds even as new plant designs hold the promise of a safer fleet;

• Declining costs and expanded use of U.S. renewable energy are encouraging, but policies needed to scale up production are still lacking;

• Chronic underinvestment by the U.S. and globally in key energy technology breakthroughs that are needed to reduce long-term high prices, production risks, and threats from pollution and climate change.

We believe that taken together, these challenges and opportunities demand a fresh look at America’s energy policy goals, decision-making structures and policies — a re-evaluation that puts energy security at the center. Along with former National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly, we will be leading the Bipartisan Policy Center Energy Project to address these issues.

Despite a clear appreciation of the above risks, our debate about energy has become tired and predictable, pitting energy sources against one another. Instead, we must recognize that our country is built on innovation and on using America’s unparalleled ingenuity to create a different kind of energy future of new ideas and technologies together.

Specifically, we urge the Congress and administration to take the following steps:

• Initiate an active and public process to identify a number of specific, credible, actionable energy security goals, including a gradual but steady reduction in the oil intensity of the U.S. economy to protect against recession;

• Develop clear and rigorous metrics to enable an ongoing transparent assessment of our progress;

• Create accountability within government for ensuring these goals are met.

A robust, measurable, accountable energy security agenda has the potential to bring the Democrats and Republicans in Congress together — a political necessity. Indeed, President Barack Obama himself seems to recognize this, as his recent speech on energy security made clear.

The president proposed valuable measures on oil security, but we must realize that oil is a globally traded commodity, in which no country is independent or invulnerable in the global oil market. Even if the U.S. were able to substitute all imports with domestic production of crude oil (likely impossible given fundamentals), the U.S. economy would still be harmed by oil price shocks. The principal economic imperative for reducing oil imports is to stem the tremendous wealth transfer from the U.S. to oil exporting nations.

This means that we must pursue an approach that reduces the oil intensity of our economy, even as we increase domestic supply. America’s ability to increase traditional domestic oil and gas supplies and use emerging technologies to create new energy sources can grow dramatically if we make increased domestic production a sustained national priority. In particular, recent advancements in shale gas production and the prospect of cleaner electricity generation, coupled with plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, could allow us to dramatically decrease U.S. oil intensity. 

But our energy security challenges and opportunities extend well beyond oil reliance. As the tragedy in Japan and ambitions in Iran remind us, the future for nuclear power remains uncertain. Increased public concern about the safety of facilities and the potential that civilian power programs will be used to mask weapons proliferation must be addressed. At the same time, in a foreboding development, growing nuclear power development in China and elsewhere raises new questions about the extent to which U.S. security and influence will be undermined if we relinquish our leadership in civilian nuclear technology.

Meanwhile, developed and developing countries are pursuing aggressive energy security strategies of their own, by both bidding up key resource prices and by subsidizing domestic energy industry, policies that will challenge American competitiveness.

For all of these reasons, we must aggressively pursue policy approaches that emphasize national and economic security in measurable ways. Against the backdrop of unsustainable national debt, however, we recognize the necessity of targeted, limited and strategic investments. We believe that many current energy programs and subsidies are inefficient, presenting the opportunity for savings and revitalization. Still, we share the view that investment in new energy technologies and security are so central to American interests that they must be a budgetary and policy priority.

Ours is an era of remarkable change around the globe — much of it hopeful, some threatening. It has been 38 years since the Arab oil embargo awakened our nation to the dangers of oil dependence. Despite the full acknowledgement of our vulnerabilities by each of our past eight presidents, from Richard Nixon to Obama, we have failed to act. Now we are running out of time.

Just as we effectively responded to the challenges of the Cold War, the space race, globalization and terrorism, so too we must unify as a nation in a bipartisan manner around this new era for energy security.

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) are senior fellows at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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