Dark Ages Redux: Will America Meet Her Future Energy Needs?

BACKGROUND: North America suffered through its largest-ever electrical power blackout August 14-15, leaving tens of millions of Americans and Canadians without power. The blackouts come at a time when passage of an energy bill has been stalled in the Senate for the second year running, and while leading environmental organizations are increasingly making it difficult for America to meet her energy needs.

President Bush, speaking August 15, said the blackout points to a need for upgrades in the country’s electrical network: “The grid needs to be modernized, the delivery systems need to be modernized. We’ve got an antiquated system.” Clinton Administration Energy Secretary Bill Richardson seemed to agree, blaming the blackout on America’s “Third World electricity grid,” and, according to NewsMax.com, told Larry King on CNN Thursday, “In the Clinton Administration, everybody yawned about this, [saying] oh, we don’t need to do this. Oh, we don’t have a crisis.”

Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), however, blamed President Bush. As reported by NewsMax, she told Larry King: “I happen to think that making sure we have a reliable, affordable system of energy is a national priority – and I don’t think that this administration sees it that way… [The Bush Administration has] continued to try to push deregulation and privatization, and to try to undo a lot of the systems in changes that many of us thought were important and necessary that we tried to work on during the Clinton administration under Secretary Richardson’s leadership.”

Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, took a non-partisan approach: “This isn’t a surprise. The magnitude of this blackout is, but not that it would happen at some point. It was only a matter of time. We haven’t built enough power plants, haven’t invested enough in capacity to allow a system to operate far enough away from the edge. And, when every power system is operating so close to the edge, the smallest pebble can cause an avalanche.”

TEN SECOND RESPONSE: For too long, we’ve taken cheap, accessible energy for granted. Energy shortages will become commonplace unless this nation adopts a pro-production energy policy — something that can be done in a safe, environmentally-sensitive manner.

THIRTY SECOND RESPONSE: Senator Pete Domenici, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said it well Thursday night: “The massive power outage in the Northeast and Midwest emphasizes once again… we need to get a national energy policy in place as soon as possible for the nation. This outage clearly demonstrates how close the nation is to its energy production and distribution limit… Ensuring the proper level of power to the country demands that we make trade offs, including production and greater use of such sources as nuclear energy and practical renewable sources.”

DISCUSSION: Fifty million Americans just got a wakeup call: cheap, accessible energy isn’t something to take for granted.

Unfortunately, many of America’s most powerful environmental organizations do take energy for granted, and they are trying to set America on a course that, if unchecked, could make the future very dark indeed.

These environmentalist groups hate energy. They don’t put it so starkly, but a review of their policies can lead to no other conclusion.

Leading environmental organizations, for example, make it very, very difficult to build new power plants and oil refineries. No major oil refineries have been built in the U.S. since 1976, although the number of vehicles in use has doubled and refineries are running at capacity.

A regulatory change made during the Clinton Administration to a program called New Source Review has, as the EPA put it in 2002, “impeded or resulted in the cancellation of projects that would maintain or improve reliability, efficiency or safety of existing power plants and refineries.”

Yet when the EPA announced that it would alter the changes to remove impediments that are harmful to energy production but unnecessary for environmental protection, environmentalists screamed bloody murder. This although the EPA was otherwise continuing the New Source Review program as devised by Congress — back in 1977, when Congress was controlled by Democrats.

Environmentalists famously oppose domestic oil drilling, advocating alternatives such as hydrogen. But, as William Tucker noted in the Weekly Standard, replacing oil with hydrogen ignores a critical fact: “…there is no source of free hydrogen in the world. Supplies will come from either 1) the electrolysis of water, which requires electricity, or 2) stripping hydrogen from natural gas.”

But environmentalists oppose natural gas drilling and most of the methods used to generate electricity, too.

Although the U.S. has vast reserves of natural gas, much of it is off limits to drilling. Through the expansion of wilderness areas and national monuments in gas-rich regions of the West, millions of acres now are closed to oil and gas exploration. All is ardently supported by environmentalists. Now approximately 40 percent of known U.S. natural gas reserves are inaccessible because of environmental regulations on federal lands.

Not coincidentally, the price of natural gas in the U.S. has nearly doubled in the past year. Storage levels of natural gas are at their lowest point in 30 years.

Using electricity for any reason poses problems for environmentalists. They oppose coal mining, so coal-generated electricity is out, and detest nuclear power plants, although nuclear energy ought to be the energy of choice for anyone who actually believes human beings are causing global warming.

Environmentalists even oppose generating electricity by harnessing the natural power of rivers through clean hydroelectric dams. In fact, leading environmentalists lobby to have the dams torn down. They cite the dams’ impact on fish, but in fact, they oppose, on general principle, the notion of toying with nature.

Some environmentalists, such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Walter Cronkite, even oppose wind farms. (Kennedy apparently thinks they are okay if he can’t see them.) Cronkite, who made a commercial against wind farms in Nantucket Sound, says “massive wind turbines could disrupt the natural habitat for wildlife.”

From a power-generation perspective, this is not such a big deal: it would take over 30,000 large windmill facilities, each containing many windmills, to generate enough electricity just for our needs. Even the wind energy industry claims only that wind energy could account for six percent of U.S. energy needs by 2020, and that’s optimistic. However, you’d think that if any energy source could pass environmentalist muster, it would be technology based on something back in the Middle Ages.

Yet, energy has to come from somewhere, and as America’s environmentalists oppose oil, natural gas, hydroelectric power, nuclear power, burning coal and even, when thought unsightly, wind farms, they really ought to tell the American people how they intend to keep the future from looking an awful lot like the Great Blackout of August 2003.


Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford, “Nuclear Power: Clean, Safe and Needing a Level Playing Field,” National Policy Analysis #480, National Center for Public Policy Research, August 2003 at http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA480.html

Bonner Cohen, “No Excuse for Natural Gas Shortage,” National Policy Analysis #477, National Center for Public Policy Research, August 2003 at http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA477.html

Amy Ridenour, “‘Blackouts’ Today, ‘Greenouts’ Tomorrow: America Needs a Pro-Production Energy Policy,” National Policy Analysis #484, National Center for Public Policy Research, August 2003 at http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA484.html

Charli E. Coon, J.D., “A Responsible Energy Policy Enhances – Not Suppresses -Domestic Supplies,” Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum #894, July 25, 2003,http://www.heritage.org/Research/EnergyandEnvironment/em894.cfm

Competitive Enterprise institute Energy and Electricity Webpage at http://www.cei.org/sections/section10.cfm

North American Electric Reliability Council at http://www.nerc.com/about/legislation.html

William Tucker, “Permanent Energy Crisis: And the Solution We Keep Ignoring,” The Weekly Standard, March 13, 2003, available at http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Protected/Articles/000/000/002/337hxxgp.asp

“Bush: Blackouts a Wake-Up Call,” CBS/AP, August 15, 2003, available at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/08/15/politics/main568596.shtml

“Hillary Blames Bush for Blackout,” NewsMax.com, August 15, 2003, available at http://www.newsmax.com/showinsidecover.shtml?a=2003/8/15/90611

Chris Baltimore, “House Commerce Panel Launches Blackout Probe,” Reuters, August 15, 2003, at http://asia.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=3285517

John Stossel, “Windstorm: Why Are ‘Environmentalists’ Opposing Windmills in Nantucket Sound?,” ABC News, July 25, 2003, available at http://abcnews.go.com/sections/2020/GiveMeABreak/gmab_windmills030725.html

The National Center for Public Policy Research, founded in 1982, is a non-partisan, free-market, independent conservative think-tank. Ninety-four percent of its support comes from individuals, less than four percent from foundations and less than two percent from corporations. It receives over 350,000 individual contributions a year from over 60,000 active recent contributors.