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State of the Union

“Bush, Resetting Agenda, Says U.S. Must Cut Reliance on Oil” reads the top headline in today’s New York Times. “Bush has plan to end oil ‘addiction'” trumpets CNN.

These are impressive-sounding claims, so let’s see how they stack up against the actual substance of the speech. And let me offer the disclaimer that I find the State of the Union address delivered by any President to be a fairly unwatchable event, several hours of ovation punctuated by a few minutes of happy talk. Nevertheless, it can offer some indication of the President’s legislative priorities over the coming year.

When I sift through the details of Bush’s speech, I find a little to like, a lot to dismiss, and a few items about which we can only wait and see.

Bush did start off his discussion of energy policy with a fairly stark statement:

Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem. America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.

Fair enough. Only problem is that just about every president since Nixon has pledged to reduce or eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. Bush himself has used his last four State of the Union addresses to call for reductions in our dependence on foreign oil.

Oil imports now stand at a record level.

Worse, one of Bush’s specific goals — “to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025” — is both less helpful than it sounds and potentially misleading.

To begin with, only about 10% of America’s oil comes from the Persian Gulf, so Bush is only talking about shifting 7% of our oil consumption over the next 20 years. Pretty small potatoes, and certainly far short of a plan to end our oil addiction.

Second, Bush implies that reducing our dependency on Mideast oil will somehow improve global security. But oil is a commodity. If we shift our supply to other, friendlier oil-producting nations, someone else will step in to pick up the slack.

The real problem is America’s dependence on oil in general. And at least in this regard, Bush did offer some concrete proposals, mainly in the form of a 22% increase in funding for clean energy research at the Deparment of Energy. The exact dollar figure isn’t yet clear, but it’s probably around $250m.

Bush also mentioned a laundry list of technologies — ethanol from wood, solar, wind, zero-emision coal, and nuclear — that all might have a useful role to play in American’s clean energy future. If we really do achieve “practical and competitive” use of biofuel within the next six years, I’ll be pretty pleased.

Of course, notably missing from the speech was any discussion of the demand side of the energy equation. Bush made no mention of improved fuel economy standards for cars and trucks. And I’m not holding my breath waiting for any sitting President to call for an increased carbon tax. Now that would be a State of the Union worth sitting through.

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