Sustainable Energy Futures: Economic and Ecological Ramifications of U.S. Energy Policy

This article comes from a new casebook on environmental ethics co-authored with James Martin Schramm and forthcoming from Orbis Books in 2004.

[1] Two primary visions of the future vie with each other to control the direction of U.S. energy policy. Developmentalists such as President Bush and Vice President Cheney advocate increasing the supply of energy and would assign large corporations the primary task of finding new sources and generating power. They assume technological innovations and market mechanisms will overcome resource limits and pollution problems. Willing to entertain a few conservation measures and endure limited environmental regulation, they advocate a minimum of government intervention in markets. Their vision of the future is economic. In this vision economic growth will provide ample wealth for every person as long as the nation stays the course of market capitalism.

[2] In contrast, a new vision of a sustainable energy future with broad support in the environmental community has emerged. Its proponents see government and the corporate sector cooperating to provide sufficient energy supplies while protecting the environment. They recommend dispersed and less intrusive technologies and a shift to renewable energy sources. They value frugality and a more equitable distribution of income, wealth, and power. They are more ecocentric than anthropocentric and focus on environmental limits to continued economic expansion.

[3] These two visions are generating increasing political conflict as the nation struggles to find a coherent energy policy. The need for such a policy became evident in the 1970s with an oil embargo and declining domestic reserves of oil. The need has grown due to political instability in major oil-producing regions, expanding demand, and increasing awareness of environmental degradation.

[4] The problems confronting the nation are numerous, interrelated, and urgent. First are the problems clustered around the question of sustainability. On the one hand many forms of energy used today threaten ecological sustainability. The burning of the fossil fuels oil, natural gas, and coal contribute to global warming. Coal-fired utility plants emit sulfur dioxide and nitric oxides that precipitate out as acid rain which degrades lakes and streams. Cars emit a number of air pollutants and create photochemical smog. The pumping of oil and gas and the strip mining of coal do damage to ecosystems that provide critical habitats for species. In addition, fossil fuels are not renewable and will eventually become more scarce and expensive.

[5] Likewise, dams built to generate renewable and inexpensive electric power from the water cycle degrade critical habitat. Nuclear energy, while long lasting, presents mammoth problems of waste storage and safety, including the threat of terrorist attack.

[6] On the other hand are fuels that are not as damaging to the environment but threaten the economic expansion that President Bush holds so dear. Solar sources and solar derivatives such as wind and hydro, are renewable and thus long-lasting, but may not provide enough power to meet high levels of demand. Many renewable forms remain expensive and for several the necessary infrastructure is not in place or even planned. The burning of hydrogen, the most abundant atom, to power motor vehicles shows promise but separating oxygen from hydrogen in water molecules is expensive. Again, no infrastructure is in place. Nuclear fusion offers an almost unlimited source of energy, but costs may be astronomical and scientists have not yet and may never solve the problem of containing the fusion reaction.

[7] Clustered around sufficiency, the second of the norms in the ethic of ecological justice, are concerns about meeting basic energy needs at a reasonable cost to society and ecosystems. What constitutes basic energy need is itself controversial. The Bush administration’s energy plan, predicated on a developmentalist vision, assumes high and expanding levels of consumption and is designed primarily to fuel expanding demand. Sufficiency means success in this endeavor.

[8] To those who advocate for a sustainable energy future, these levels of consumption are far too high and should be reduced. Sufficiency to them means meeting genuinely basic needs, not inflated wants. While unable to come up with a number, they are certain that it is far less than present levels of consumption. The problem, as they see it, is high and increasing demand.

[9] To reduce levels of consumption they recommend conservation measures. Conservation is a vague term, but in the context of energy discussions it generally means increased efficiency, less waste, and reduced demand. Efficiency means more energy output for less input and is usually attained by increasing the amount of heat from a given source or shifting to more efficient sources.1 Less waste means matching energy source to end use and the reduction of pollutants and heat loss. Reduced demand means less consumption and greater frugality.

[10] Conservation measures have become increasingly important since the oil embargo of the 1970s exposed U.S. dependence on foreign sources. U.S. oil reserves are declining. The Persian Gulf region and the states of the former Soviet Union have the largest petroleum reserves.2 Instabilities in both regions have increased U.S. vulnerability. Conservation is a primary way to reduce this vulnerability. Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, energy conservation has become a matter of national security.

[11] Clustered around the third norm, participation, are three important questions. First, how are energy decisions to be made? The National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPD) led by Vice President Cheney apparently put the administration’s energy plan together primarily from recommendations suggested by representatives from the energy industry.3 Who actually participated remains a mystery because the administration refuses to tell the public. The need for congressional approval and involvement has added a measure of popular participation, but still the process seems to have been limited. However limited the process was, future deliberations should be more transparent and offer opportunities for those affected to have a voice.

[12] The second question has to do with the nature of the technologies used to produce energy. Complex, technically sophisticated, and centralized technologies, for example nuclear, do not permit much participation. In contrast, decentralized forms like solar do.

[13] The third question involves jobs. For better or worse, participation in the economy means having a job. Energy policies and systems should increase meaningful employment. Labor saving technologies may not necessarily be the best for a sufficient and sustainable energy future.

[14] The final norm in the ethic of ecological justice is solidarity and has to do primarily with questions of distribution and bearing the burden of increased energy costs. The distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. is increasingly unequal.4 As energy costs rise, the poor will bear a heavier burden. They already bear the heavier burden of disease and premature death from pollution, because energy facilities and toxic waste dumps are seldom located in wealthy neighborhoods.5

[15] To sum up, energy choices are social choices. The mix of sources and levels of consumption Americans elect today will go a long way to shape society and culture for years to come. These choices are critical.

Guidelines for Energy Decisions

[16] The four norms in the ethic of ecological justice set the general direction. We offer further guidelines based on these norms and the current energy situation.6 These guidelines serve as an evaluative tool to assess energy policies and various energy alternatives, such as trade-offs between coal, nuclear, and solar options. Given the number and variety of guidelines, decision-makers should not expect a perfect fit. Some guidelines will suggest one direction or option, others different directions and options. Many decisions will be close calls with pluses and minuses nearly equal. For the purposes of this commentary, the following guidelines deserve attention.

The Context of the Administration’s Energy Plan

[17] Before assessing the Bush administration’s energy plan using the four norms in the ethic of ecological justice and the twelve guidelines, it is important to recognize the context in which it was developed. The U.S. business community is a critical constituency for Republicans, if not necessarily in terms of raw votes, certainly in terms of money and public relations. This constituency, while hardly of one mind, is generally conservative in the sense of protecting the prerogatives of management and promoting commercial interests. Matters of economy, especially economic growth and low rates of inflation are central objectives.

[18] The business community is dominated by developmentalist and to a lesser degree conservationist perspectives. While there are differences in this community on the matter of government regulation, generally this community is laissez faire except when it comes to government purchases and subsidies. The environment is of secondary concern, although this is changing with increased environmental awareness. Environmental degradation is not considered a major problem because new technologies are assumed to be available to solve pollution problems or limited resource availability.

[19] That the Bush administration favors increasing energy supplies and handing the job to large corporations is not surprising. It is a logical outcome of a perspective sincerely believed and a desire to serve an important constituency. In terms of the norms of the ethic of ecological justice and the twelve guidelines, the Bush plan correlates the norms of sufficiency and solidarity, claiming that sufficiency means high levels of consumption and economic growth. The administration translates the concern for the poor into policy through high levels of employment that are thought to be the only way to relieve poverty. In the words of former President John F. Kennedy: “A rising tide raises all boats.”

[20] From the guidelines the administration stresses efficiency as productivity, adequacy of supply, lower monetary costs to industry, high employment, and timely decision-making. These are all reasonable emphases in the economic climate of the past century.

[21] Whether appeals in the plan to environmental soundness and consistency with good environmental practice are mere window dressing is difficult to judge. Probably not, given the assumptions of the perspective. Also, while the environmental record of the Bush administration has been spotty, it does not advocate wholesale abandonment of major environmental safeguards.7 Finally, the appearance of being anti-environmental is not politically wise in a time of increasing awareness. It is therefore safe to assume that the administration has at least minimal concern for environmental preservation, particularly forms that do not require economic sacrifice.

[22] Many Americans share the administration’s perspective. Many more understand the dynamics of unemployment and vote their pocketbooks first. Far less have a working knowledge of environmental complexities and find the capacity to assess the threat of environmental degradation.

[23] Appreciation of the context and the concerns that dominate the plan does not mean acceptance, however. To those of preservationist and critical eco-justice perspectives and even to some conservationists the plan is fatally flawed. In terms of the four general norms these critics note the lack of participation of critical groups in the development of the plan and question the premise that economic growth raises all boats. In fact during the past decades the boats of the wealthy have risen much faster, and many have been by-passed by economic expansion. These critics also think the plan with its assumption of ever increasing consumption is unsustainable on environmental grounds.

[24] To get the essential information and assumptions of the Bush energy plan, go to the plan itself. Detailed recommendations are to be found in the eighth chapter of the plan.8 The House of Representatives passed the plan last year. The Senate passed a quite different version, and the two plans were never reconciled. With a Republican majority in both houses the prospects for passage have improved considerably. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge hangs in the balance. Senate Republicans want to include drilling in an appropriations bill to avoid a filibuster. Several Republican senators have objected, however.

Assessing the Plan

[25] The Bush administration’s energy plan has several strengths. With regard to the twelve guidelines the plan is strong on efficiency in terms of energy use, if not in terms of reduced consumption. If adequacy of supply is defined as the meeting of expanding energy wants, the plan is good for the short term and provides some incentives for shifting to more sustainable sources. The plan supports tax-credits for the research and development of renewable energy sources, even though it does not place much short term reliance on these sources.

[26] The plan considers the critical risk factor to be the threat to economic growth and current standards of living. It provides for both, assuming again that human ingenuity will bring forth the necessary new technologies that will overcome environmental constraints.

[27] Under the administration’s plan, other things being equal, employment levels should remain high. The planners correctly assume that jobs in today’s economy are directly related to economic growth. Were energy shortages to appear, unemployment would probably rise with attendant political consequences.

[28] The plan calls for a multiplicity of approaches and thus factors in some flexibility. Decisions for fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydro have environmental consequences, however. The plans opts for timely decision-making by reducing regulation, facilitating permits for new infrastructure, and opening up federal lands that were previously off-limits.

[29] The effects of the administration’s plan on national security and prospects for reducing armed conflict are impossible to predict. Certainly having ANWR on line will not do much for energy independence. Still, the plan could reduce dependence somewhat by increasing U.S. production.

[30] Whether the plan will deliver on these positive elements is also difficult to assess, as so much depends on the development of new technologies and on the private sector serving the public good. The Bush administration is highly optimistic on these counts, and, as a consequence, is willing to keep running what amounts to a radical experiment on the environment.

[31] Negatively, critics of the plan point to several shortcomings. The plan starts with the status quo of free market capitalism and extends its sway by giving the business sector a large measure of freedom to pursue its interests. This system, while productive, has seldom by itself produced an equitable distribution of income and wealth. Channeling public funds to corporations will not change this. The sole hope for the poor under this plan is in high employment levels. The equitable distribution of costs and benefits seems of little moment to the administration.

[32] While the plan stresses increased economic efficiency, it says little about the efficient workings of ecosystems or about reduced consumption of energy. In so far as excessive consumption drives environmental degradation, the plan heads in the wrong direction.

[33] Adequacy of supply is a matter for the short term in the plan. Defining adequacy in terms of basic needs is nowhere to be found. Unlimited economic expansion is the real concern.

[34] The administration’s plan nods in the direction of renewable sources, but little more. An economy based on renewable sources is not part of the plan’s vision, and those pursuing this path are little more than virtuous, according to Vice President Cheney. To environmentalists the government has a role in pushing the nation in the direction of sustainable energy paths. The plan only nudges.

[35] The plan relies on large corporations and large-scale, complex technologies, such as nuclear power. It ignores any notion of appropriate technology.

[36] Risk has mostly an economic meaning in the plan. Risks to the environment and costs to animals and people are assumed away with technological fixes. Global warming is dismissed and so are the high levels of risk associated with a commitment to nuclear. While environmental compatibility is a strong theme, nowhere is it spelled out. The planners assume the use of fossil fuel, nuclear, and hydroelectric sources is compatible with environmental protection. So much is glossed over that stated commitments to environmental protection become suspect.

[37] How the plan promotes energy security, reduced dependence on outside sources, and peace is a mystery. Even if domestic production of oil and gas is stimulated, high levels of fossil fuel consumption will continue. Domestic production will simply not be adequate for such consumption.

[38] The monetary cost of meeting ever-increasing demand will be stupendous. Scientists, technologists, and managers will demand their due, and the consumer will pay. Global warming, degraded ecosystems, and the mass extinction of species are not counted as costs.

[39] Reliance on fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydroelectric is lacking in flexibility. Environmentalists are calling for a much greater commitment to a wide range of very flexible renewable sources, most of which are easily altered if problems arise.

[40] The closed process that resulted in the plan and the handing over of most energy decisions to the private sector, the reduction of regulations, and the speeding up of energy decisions do not lend themselves to increased participation.

[41] Aesthetics are not a factor in the plan. How the strip mining of coal, the location of oil production facilities in pristine wilderness, and more power plants are aesthetic is difficult to fathom.

[42] All these criticisms come, of course, from an environmental perspective that is rejected by the administration. The current situation is, however, forcing choices between basic perspectives, assumptions about the future, and basic ways of living. The choices made today will have a far-reaching effect.


[43] Energy policy is complex. Comprehension requires basic knowledge of economics, politics, the natural sciences, and ethics. The depth and breadth of knowledge required is unfortunate because today’s energy choices will be an important factor in determining tomorrow’s society and the future of the global environment. Energy choices are that critical.