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Boosting America’s Energy Security Requires Multi-Front Effort, New Thinking

By Byron Dorgan

Senatory Bryon Dorgan (D-ND)
Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND)
For the past three decades, we Americans have debated the growing threat to our nation’s energy security and what to do about it. Each year we hear the warnings. Each year we hear the same solutions suggested. Each year we hear the same objections. It’s as if the debate has been on an endless loop.

In all that time, only one thing changed. Our energy vulnerability grew much worse.

The threat we face is not new. The OPEC oil embargos in the 1970’s were a major wake-up call to action. While the OPEC oil embargos spurred some changes, they have not been enough.

Now the threat to our energy security is much more dramatic than it was in the 1970’s.

We used to worry about oil embargos. Today the threat is terrorism, and a red hot shooting war raging in the Middle East, one of the most volatile regions of the world, and the source for much of America’s petroleum.  

Unlike in the Cold War, our increasing dependence on imported oil and the need for access to secure energy resources play a central role in this new struggle. Yet, we still argue the same old policies.

One side—as it has for thirty years and more—says the answer is conservation. The other—as it has for thirty years and more—says just as forcefully that the answer is to produce more energy here at home.

Both are wrong. And both are right.

They are wrong because there is no single answer. They are right because more conservation and energy efficiency and greater production of energy here at home are very important parts of the solution. We need both.

As Chairman of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Energy, and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, that’s the path I’m working to pursue. It’s also the philosophy at the heart of bipartisan legislation I have introduced, the Security and Fuel Efficiency Energy Act (SAFE) Energy Act.

We simply cannot afford or risk another thirty years of gridlock.  

My plan is a comprehensive approach that recognizes there is no magical “single bullet” that will solve America’s dependence on foreign oil.  

Frankly, my plan advances certain policies many of us did not support as stand-alone proposals. Some of us actively opposed them in the past. But when they are part of a comprehensive package that asks no single effort to carry the whole load, they make sense.

The SAFE Energy bill relies on four cornerstone principles to reduce the use of oil in our economy:

  1. Achievable, stepped increases in fuel efficiency of the transportation fleet;  
  2. Increased availability of alternative fuel sources and infrastructure;
  3. Expanded production of domestic oil and natural gas resources; and
  4. Improved management of alliances to better secure global oil supplies.  

Are some of the provisions of our legislation controversial? You bet. But our reliance on foreign oil is too dangerous for Congress to continue to avoid taking up controversial issues. The only way we are going to break our dependence and achieve energy security is to set robust, long-term goals and work to achieve these goals through programs, incentives, mandates, and increased investments.  

Since the introduction of the SAFE Energy Act, I have worked to ensure that any bipartisan legislation moving through the Senate incorporates these principles.

The Senate recently passed major energy legislation that included significant progress toward meeting three of these four principles. I am pleased with the progress we made in the the Energy bill. I remain committed to making further progress and to achieving all four goals of the SAFE Energy Act.  

Here’s what the Senate has done so far this year:
  • Increased fuel efficiency standards: The most recent Senate Energy bill reforms the old corporate average fuel economy, or CAFÉ, system and raises fuel efficiency standards for our nation’s passenger automobile fleet to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.  

Nearly four decades after the first OPEC oil embargo, America remains over 60 percent dependent on foreign oil, including oil coming from some of the most troubled parts of the world. Because the transportation sector is where we use 67 percent of the oil in our economy, this is the sector that contributes most to energy insecurity.   

For decades, most Members of Congress deferred the decision making on fuel economy standards to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA). Since the mid 1980’s NHTSA has done little to to boost fuel efficiency standards, and we’ve made little progress as a result.  With all the technological marvels made to passenger vehicles in 25 years—keyless entry, better cup holders, automatic trunk openers—fuel economy has not increased.

Over the past two decades, automakers have made substantial gains with respect to convenience, safety, power and performance. In the next two decades, we need to focus our incredible innovative efforts on improvements in fuel economy for all vehicles. Congress must now weigh in to take a much more pro-active role in setting fuel economy standards.

Raising the automobile fuel efficiency standard to a fleet average of 35 miles per gallon in the United States by 2020 will, alone, save 2 to 2.5 million barrels of oil per day.  

Unlike the old CAFÉ standards, this new system will group vehicles into separate classifications based on their attributes such as by weight, size and other features rather than pitting different vehicles against each other. Also, medium and heavy duty trucks have been brought into the system for the first time.  

  • Expanding the availability of renewable fuels—The Senate Energy bill also expanded the current renewable fuels standard (RFS) to 36 billion gallons by 2022. The original renewable fuels standard in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 called for 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels like ethanol and others to be used in our fuel mix by 2012. Increasing the RFS ensures that we will not only further use our expansive renewable resources from starch-based ethanol, but will also increasingly look to cellulosic fuels in the future.    

  • Improved alliances on global energy supplies—The Senate Energy bill also strongly encouraged strengthening our ties with other nations in order to increase cooperation and increase our energy security. Even as we seek to be more energy independent, it is clear we will also need to work through diplomatic alliances to reduce the risk of an international energy crisis.  

One area where we also must do more is domestic energy production. Our work to spur production of more renewable fuels is a big part of that effort. We need to produce more oil and natural gas here at home.  

We can no longer simply watch OPEC ministers sit around a table and decide how far to turn the spigot that feeds our addiction to foreign oil. One disruption in the global oil supply could put our economy flat on its back.

The SAFE Energy bill strongly encourages the production of more oil and natural gas. We specifically recommend that more production of both could be developed in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico and near Cuba. We also call for a further inventory of resources in the Southeastern U.S. waters.

Our production opportunities are substantial in this area and build upon the legislation Congress passed just a year ago to allow exploration and production in the Gulf region known as Lease Sale 181. Bringing this area into production, even with our insistence that it be done in an environmentally sound way, will not be easy. Some in the Senate are working hard to block that effort.

We must realize that even as we develop alternative fuels and use our resources more efficiently, the development of our own resources is a safer and more sensible course than continuing our increasing and precarious dependence on other nations’ oil.  

In 2006, U.S. payments abroad for oil were more than $250 billion, a third of our country’s $800 billion current account deficit. Between the summer of 2003 and the summer of 2006, world oil prices rose from roughly $25 per barrel to more than $78 per barrel.  

Oil dependence, by the U.S. and our allies, reduces the leverage of the world community in responding to threats from oil-exporting nations. Emerging nations with substantial oil resources have embraced economic inequality and autocracy, which spawns violence.

Today, the most prominent threat comes from Iran, whose nuclear ambitions could further destabilize the Persian Gulf and put terrifying new weapons into the hands of terrorists.   

Congress must also get to work helping to develop the next generation of energy technologies. Let’s use America’s innovative spirit! I am working to harness that innovation to increase our energy security through my work on the Senate Appropriations Committee. As the Chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, I’ve worked to provide funding to programs that seek to develop and demonstrate a wide array of new energy technologies.  

The need to develop new energy technologies is not only urgent but long over-due. For that matter, we put gas in a 2007 Ford the same way that we did in a 1927 Ford. It’s time to think and act differently.  

I am proud to say that the Energy and Water Subcommittee, under my chairmanship, has funded the Department of Energy’s energy programs—the programs seek to develop new energy technologies—with $3.715 billion for the coming year. That funding is $536 million above the President’s request. While the President often speaks about the importance of energy, we are following through with increased funding for that effort.

Specifically, our Subcommittee has provided $228 million to develop hydrogen technologies, $244 million for biomass and renewable fuels, $230 million for vehicle technologies, $168 million for electricity and transmission research, and $808 million for coal, oil, and natural gas research.

Funding for these important initiatives lays the groundwork for the goals we seek to achieve in our SAFE Energy legislation. By adequately funding our research and development programs, we will be able to take these technologies and ideas into the marketplace. Automakers can use the advances we achieve to make more advanced, fuel efficient vehicles. Companies will be able to produce the next generation of ethanol and biodiesel, especially cellulosic ethanol. We will be able to use new technologies and ideas for the development of unconventional oil and gas resources. All of these investments contribute to greater energy security for America.  

In short, if we are to strengthen America’s energy security—and we must because the consequences of not acting to do that could be catastrophic—we must do many things.

We must make better use of our own fossil and renewable energy resources here at home.

We must do more to increase our energy efficiency, especially when it comes to automobile fuel economy standards.  

We must work with our allies to expand and strengthen the diplomatic infrastructure critical to avoiding policy disputes that can disrupt energy supplies and in helping to resolve those disputes so they don’t disrupt our energy supplies.

If we do all this, Americans and our economy will be less vulnerable. We can shift our military resources away from protecting the global oil system and begin committing more resources to preserve the Planet Earth for future generations by protecting the environment.

Our energy security problems are urgent and long-standing. Continuing to think, act, and argue the same old debates exactly the way we have for the past 30 years will take us no where closer to solutions than in the past.

It’s time to end the stalemate and act to make America’s energy future a more secure one.

US Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, is Chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, Energy Subcommittee, and Interstate Commerce, Trade and Tourism Subcommittee.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff