Letter from the Editor

by Philipp Steger  

The current or looming - depending on whom you talk to - energy crisis has struck the lofty reaches of luxury travel: The New York Times reported recently that the aficionados of floating vacations aboard a cruise ship will have to contend with fuel surcharges that many cruise lines are now starting to add to their already hefty prices. While one may safely assume that the customers concerned will be able to handle this latest consequence of the dramatic increase in world crude oil prices, the assumption that the US will be able to successfully address the challenges inherent in its dependence on foreign oil imports is a much less secure bet.

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Now well into the president's second term, the Bush administration has yet to come up with a comprehensive national energy strategy, although the topic owes its urgency to many factors beyond the recent spike in oil prices. A previous attempt that led to the presentation of a National Energy Policy by the White House in early 2001 was sidetracked by the terrorist attacks later that year. It has taken the two chambers of Congress until now to come up with legislation to address the short-term energy crisis and the long-term challenges of pollution and global warming associated with the current prevalence of fossil fuels as energy resources. The two congressional versions of an energy bill, both of which have been criticized by environmentalists as lackluster in terms of the fundamental changes required to address the long-term challenges, still need to be melded into one version to be sent to the president. 


European observers will be dismayed to learn that even the legislation proposed by the Senate, which outshines the House legislation in terms of foresight and willingness to embrace alternative energy sources, lacks mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. A bipartisan amendment, introduced by Senators McCain and Lieberman, to cap carbon emissions in 2010 at levels that prevailed in 2000, did not make it into the final version of the Senate bill. The non-binding resolution that was passed instead may, at first sight, seem to be little more than a placebo. But a closer look at the language of section 1612 of the proposed Energy Policy Act of 2005 shows that global warming is finally being acknowledged as a scientifically valid theory. The text is worth quoting in its entirety: "Congress finds that (1) greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere are causing average temperatures to rise at a rate outside the range of natural variability and are posing a substantial risk of rising sea-levels, altered patterns of atmospheric and oceanic circulation, and increased frequency and severity of floods and droughts;  (2) there is a growing scientific consensus that human activity is a substantial cause of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere; and  (3) mandatory steps will be required to slow or stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere."


Still, the biggest surprise of all came from an unlikely source, when the CEO of General Electric (GE), Jeffrey Immelt, publicly - albeit subtly - chastised the administration for dragging its feet on energy policy. In an article co-authored with Jonathan Lash, President of the World Resources Institute, Immelt urged the US to "revolutionize the way we produce and consume energy." Such a fundamental change, Immelt wrote, required three things: a market, the right technologies, and the political will. While he attested to the existence of the first of the two, the leader of GE criticized the lack of a consistent energy policy, saying, "If necessity is the mother of invention, procrastination is its enemy."


On January 1st, 2006, Austria will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union for a period of six months. During that time, the Office of Science & Technology, publisher of bridges, will handle environmental policy issues at the Austrian Embassy. It is for this reason that we have decided to dedicate a number of articles in the current issue to environmental issues. A good place to start is Jutta Kern's insightful analysis of what drives sustainable development in the US.

Philipp Steger

Related Information:

- "The Courage to Develop Clean Energy" by Jeffrey Immelt and Jonathan Lash, The Washington Post, May 21, 2005  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/05/20/AR2005052001332.html
- Text of H.R. 6, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as agreed to by the US Senate  http://thomas.loc.gov/  (bill number H.R.6.EAS){/access}



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