Politics & Policy

Obama’s Energy Vision

Just call him Al.

Detroit, Mich. – Barack Obama has charmed America with a silver tongue, sonorous voice, and infectious optimism. But when it comes to policy details, the young Illinois senator sounds a lot like a thin, grim Al Gore.

On Monday, Obama came to America’s Motor City via a gas-guzzling charter jet and a thirsty Chevy Suburban SUV to deliver a major policy address on his “Plan to Change the Cars We Drive and the Fuels We Use.” Obama informed a sold-out Detroit Economic Club luncheon littered with stunned auto executives that America faces its greatest challenge since World War II: The fight against “the tyranny of oil.”

In a speech breathtaking in its ignorance of the auto market and its lack of honesty about U.S. energy needs, Obama outlined a three-step plan to rid America of the energy resource “that has fueled our way of life over the last hundred years [and] now threatens to destroy it.”

Ignoring the extraordinary freedom and mobility that the gas engine has delivered, Obama instead outlined a dark picture of a civilization on Armageddon’s doorstep. Our “oil addiction,” he said, has empowered Osama bin Laden and corrupt Latin dictators, and has set “off a chain of dangerous weather patterns that would condemn future generations to global catastrophe.” Hurricanes, drought, famine, and forest fires are ravaging the globe today with the result that “people are dying. . . and species are becoming extinct.”

He laid blame at the American auto industry’s feet.

“We have to be honest about how we arrived at this point,” he thundered. Then he dishonestly explained that, “while foreign competitors were investing in more fuel efficient technology for their vehicles, American automakers were spending their time investing in bigger, faster cars.”

That would be news to foreign competitors. In fact, Japanese carmakers have penetrated the U.S. market in the last 30 years by selling consumers what they want: quality, and big, sedans and trucks. In 1985, for example, 96 percent of the nearly one million cars Toyota sold were small cars. Today, at 2.5 million in sales, only 28 percent of its fleet is small vehicles, while 20 percent are light trucks. Meanwhile, General Motors leads the industry with 23 different models that get over 30 miles per gallon — hardly the resistance to reform that, the senator says, “could’ve saved the industry.”

Having erected his straw man, Obama then presumed to explain how he would retool an industry “that will mass produce fuel efficient cars.”

First, he would strengthen federal fuel efficiency (so-called CAFE) laws by an arbitrary four percent a year. Since 1975, CAFE laws requiring that auto fleets average 27.5 mpg have failed miserably. Oil imports as a share of U.S. oil consumption have risen from 35 to 59 percent, and Americans today consume 20-percent more fuel driving twice as many miles.

But CAFE has benefited farm-state politicians like Obama and their Big Ethanol patrons like Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland. CAFE created an “ethanol loophole,” allowing automakers to gain mileage credits by designing “flex-fuel” vehicles that use ethanol as well as gas. Never mind that, because corn-ethanol production requires large amounts of fossil fuel even as it provides 30 percent less energy per gallon than does gas, it likely does more environmental harm than conventional fuel. The loophole has carved out a false ethanol market maintained by pols beholden to farm lobbyists.

In order for the industry to meet Obama’s new mandate without suffering crippling costs, similar measures to game the system will inevitably be created. To help automakers understand his energy vision, Obama also proposes outright bribes.

“If the industry is prepared to step up to its responsibilities,” he said, “we’ll partially defray its health care costs.” He defines “partially” as $7 billion a year — or 10 percent of the industry’s health costs — opening an expensive new government entitlement.

Finally, Obama says overcoming oil will “require tough choices by our government and the sustained commitment of the American people.”

Obama lauds Japan for “cars now getting an average of 45 miles to the gallon.” But he ducks the reason. Japan’s government imposes taxes that drive gas prices in Japan over $5 a gallon — a “tough choice” Obama avoids.

His call for consumer commitment is equally disingenuous. Americans, he says, must understand the “responsibility we have to buy (hybrid) cars — to realize that a few hundred extra dollars for a hybrid is the price we pay as citizens committed to a cause bigger than ourselves.”

In fact, hybrid cars costs thousands of dollars more than conventional vehicles (the Mercury Mariner hybrid, for instance, costs $7,000 more) — a premium that would take years to recover in saved fuel costs.

For all of Obama’s “World War” rhetoric, he never defines victory. If WWII was about defeating the Axis powers, Obama’s war sounds more like a religious crusade. Faced with no evidence that CAFE and hybrids would impact global temperatures, Obama’s purpose smacks of a power grab — an expansion of government’s empire.

In the end, Obama’s call to arms would not deliver us from a “tyranny of oil” but would deliver us to a tyranny of government control.

Just Can’t Get Enough? You should be reading Planet Gore.

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