Political Scene

The 2003 Energy Bill: Did Politics Trump Science?
Eloise Kendy

According to U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) projections, American energy consumption in 2020 will increase 30 percent over current demand. In less than three decades, energy demand worldwide is expected to double. Both projections point to intensified competition for global energy supplies — competition that has already led to international conflict. Thus, Congress rightfully has focused considerable attention on securing our nation’s energy future.

But this November, after months and months of political wrangling, the long-awaited, much-touted energy bill seemed destined for demise. Given the critical importance of energy policy to our economy, environment and international relations, how could our leaders allow this to happen?

Nearly three months into my American Geological Institute Congressional Science Fellowship, I am only beginning to understand. The politics of energy policy, like those of countless issues facing Congress, are exceedingly complex in ways that I never could have imagined. At the same time, I find that the basic underlying assumptions that I, as a scientist, instinctively question seem to be excluded from the political discussion.

Take, for example, the DOE projections of future energy demands. Cited time and again as the impetus for accelerating domestic energy development, these projections play an amazingly powerful role in the debate. Some cite them as justification for weakening laws that protect the environment and the public’s role in overseeing and granting permits for development projects.

As scientists, however, we know these projections are based on a number of assumptions. Most of the projected increase in energy demand, for example, is based on an assumed increase in miles driven in cars and light trucks, following historical trends. But if instead, Americans were to choose efficient public transportation systems, telecommuting and smart growth over longer, slower traffic jams, then the projected demand would be too high.

Statistics for another limited resource — water — show that reservoir construction rates have decreased, while economic productivity (in gross domestic product dollars per gallon) has increased in the past few decades. Society’s recognition of the economic and environmental consequences of dams has led to a major change in the dominant target of government funding — from the mega-infrastructure projects of the past to conservation incentives of today. Consequently, cost projections for meeting future infrastructure demands for water management have decreased.

But rather than striving toward reducing energy demand, lawmakers are attempting to facilitate an indefinite continuation of today’s consumption rates, albeit with some new sources to replace hydrocarbons. These days, hydrogen is being promoted as the miracle energy source of the future. At a recent briefing, representatives of major energy producers and automobile manufacturers informed congressional staffers that domestic hydrogen production, from fossil fuels in the short term, biomass in the middle term and water in the long term, could fuel our entire projected automobile fleet. Questions from the audience followed directly from the presentation: How much will it cost? What is the timetable? What enabling legislation is needed? Conspicuously absent were questions of whether the technology is feasible or sustainable.

Taking a firsthand look

I was able to get a better feel for the realities of technologies currently in domestic production, as well as hydrogen technologies in development, at the Energy and Mineral Field Institute. The Colorado School of Mines organized this week-long tour of energy-producing facilities in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. A precursor to my fellowship, the institute aims to promote better understanding of the complex regional and national issues surrounding Western resource development. The tour provided a phenomenal opportunity to observe the realities of, and meet the people closest to, a wide array of energy projects.

Thirty participants, representing the White House, Congress and several federal agencies, witnessed the latest developments in solar, wind and hydrogen technology; coal production from underground, strip and highwall mines; coalbed and tight sands gas extraction; enhanced oil recovery; carbon sequestration; and tar sands projects. Extensive tours of the Jim Bridger Power Plant in Wyoming, and the Flaming Gorge Dam and Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, rounded out the trip. John Rold, retired director of the Colorado Geological Survey, provided animated geologic commentary throughout the long drive over the Rocky Mountains and across the Colorado Plateau. Along the way, we heard from the full gamut of industry representatives, from earnest technicians to forceful lobbyists, who implored the captive audience of influential policy-makers to facilitate their projects. And of course they cited those compelling energy-demand projections to emphasize their urgency.

What I had not expected to glean from the tour — and what has been more than confirmed by my limited experience in the Senate — is the overly localized nature of the national energy debate.

Although each industrial sector is justifiably proud of its national contribution, its real value seems to be measured in terms of local contributions to job growth and the tax base; those are the benefits on which members of Congress are willing to stake political capital. Thus, the comprehensive energy bill represents much less a unified vision of national energy security than a cobbled-together amalgamation of funding for local projects, which together do not necessarily benefit the nation as a whole.

Interestingly, the arguments have been less along party lines than across regional divides. Texas, which produces the gasoline additive MTBE, opposes efforts by the Northeast to seek punitive damages from producers to help remediate MTBE-contaminated groundwater. Midwestern farming states support ethanol requirements, while other states argue that taxpayers should not subsidize corn growers to produce energy inefficiently. These examples are only the highest profile of a litany of regional differences that have shaped the recent debate.

Perhaps the distinctly localized nature of energy production and consumption makes a unified national energy policy particularly elusive. But at the same time, this issue offers a salient and instructive example of how unquestioned projections of future needs frame important debates, and the power of local politics to eclipse national interests. If the basic questions underlying the debate were not about how we should fuel our cars but rather about how we should manage our natural resources, perhaps the outcome would be different.

In the coming months, as I acclimate to the rarified climate of national politics, I will further explore these concerns in hopes of better integrating science into this complicated milieu.

Kendy is the 2003-2004 American Geological Institute (AGI) Congressional Science Fellow, one of about 30 fellows sponsored by science and engineering societies. She is spending her one-year fellowship working on public lands, water resources and energy policy in the office of Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev). Support for the AGI fellowship is provided by the AGI Foundation. Email:

The views presented here are solely those of the author, and do not reflect the views of Sen. Reid or the American Geological Institute and its member societies.

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