Dr. J.’s Commentary: U.S. Energy Policy: A Brief History

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First American billionaire John D. Rockefeller, the father of “Standard Oil”, and grandaddy of ExxonMobil. All energy industries used by the industrial revolution—from coal to oil— have a history smeared with blood, but few match oil for its nefarious effects, including now not only involvement in endless wars, but the puncturing of the biosphere.

Dateline: Tue, 11/25/2008  | [print_link]

It is often said that the United States “has no energy policy,” that we “need to develop one as quickly as possible,” and that it should be based on alternate fuels and more importantly, alternate and renewable energy sources. Well the last two parts are true; the first is definitely not. As we enter an era of debate on and development of a new energy policy, it is very important to understand these facts. We would not be substituting something for nothing. Rather we would be replacing the current energy policy with another one. Further, the new one would be highly antithetical to the interests (to say nothing of the profits) of the developers and defenders of the old one. They would (and indeed will) constitute a very powerful enemy of change. It is impossible to estimate just how far they will go in defending their interests. But these folks have fought dirty in the past and there is no reason to believe that they will change their stripes anytime soon. But no old policy can be changed to a new one if one does not clearly understand just what the present one is. 

The present U.S. energy policy is not written down, at least in publicly available sources. The clearest statement/description of what it is currently is to be found in the notes/reports of the meetings of the Cheney Secret Energy Task Force. It is known to have started meeting right after the 2000 election. Since Cheney made it clear from the time that word of the first meeting or two leaked out that no records of the meeting(s) would be released and was obviously very unhappy that there was any public knowledge that the meeting(s) had even occurred, it is left to speculation as to whether there were further meetings. Since the subject is highly complex, it is highly likely that there were. One thing is certain. The known and unknown records of any and all such meetings will have either been destroyed or removed to an undisclosed location safer than Yucca Flats by the time the Obama Administration takes office. Nevertheless, its basic components are clearly discernable by looking at the history of energy production and use in the Untied States. 

Modern U.S. energy policy stems from the time in 1859 when oil was discovered in Northwestern Pennsylvania. In the beginning there were many small, independent producers. By the mid-1880s, there was one major one: John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust. By the early 1900s, JDR had earned the tile of the “most hated man in America,” both for the way he dealt with competitors and the way he dealt with his customers. Interestingly enough, the direct descendant of his original Standard Oil Trust is ExxonMobil. By the 1920s, major U.S. oil production had moved to Texas. Modern U.S. energy policy dates back to World War II when the far-sighted of the oil barons foresaw that easily accessible domestic oil would run out in the relatively near future and that it was the gigantic reserves that had been found in the Middle East, at that time principally in Saudi Arabia, that would be the central focus of ongoing oil company profits. Middle East policy since that time has had its central focus determined by that fact. Then further they had to ensure that the central focus of U.S. energy policy domestically would be on petroleum. And so was that policy developed. 

In the immediate post-war era, the first step that was taken was to convert the power source for the railroads from coal to oil (converting from steam locomotives to diesel and cutting back wherever possible on electrified lines, like the only transcontinental electrified line, The Milwaukee Road). This accomplished the double purpose of vastly boosting oil consumption while over time putting out of business one of most powerful unions in the Untied States, the militant United Mine Workers. Next was the matter, in the 1950s, of creating an immense public subsidy for the automobile and truck companies, and the trucking industry too, otherwise known as the Interstate Highway System. Passenger rail traffic was allowed to decline precipitously while freight traffic dropped significantly. Conveniently, the railroad workers’ unions (never one, as with the mine workers, but known to join together in alliances for particular purposes and militant on occasion) were replaced by the Teamsters, notoriously corrupt and politically right-wing. 

When the Middle Eastern countries nationalized their oil in the 1970s, the U.S. giants didn’t miss a beat. They no longer owned the oil, but they still made large profits buying from the owners and re-selling in the U.S. To keep consumption up, they supported (behind the scenes to be sure, I’m sure) the U.S. auto industry in its policy of keeping Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards as low as possible and doing as poorly in small car design, sales, and marketing as they possibly could, which were major factors in leading to the U.S. domestic auto industry crisis of today. 

The U.S. oil industry elected its own President for the first time in 1980. One of the progressive measures undertaken by President Carter was the creation of a Federal fund to support research and development in alternative fuels and energy. One of the first acts, taken on January 21, 1981, by that first oil industry President, Ronald Reagan, was to shut that operation down, cold. If it had been allowed to continue and develop, it is highly likely a) that the U.S. would not be in the energy pickle that it is now in and b) that we would be the world leader in alternative fuels/energy technology and production. 

Beginning in the 1990s, of course, the oil industry began its propaganda campaign against the understanding of global warming, the role of carbon dioxide production by humans in its galloping advance, and the massive threats it has created for the future of civilization as we know it. Borrowing from the tactics used by the cigarette companies in fighting the truth (first recognized by German physicians in the 1930s and used as the basis of his nationwide anti-smoking campaign — except in the armed services — by Adolf Hitler) about the relationship between smoking and ill-health, the oil industry still had many shills putting forth the lie, that Limbaugh and his clones are still doing that “global warming is a hoax.” And so it goes, right up to and including the abandonment of Kyoto, the Administration’s own counterclaims on global warming, the War on Iraq for oil and bases, and so on and so forth. 

Yes indeed, the U.S. does have an energy policy. It is to make us as oil-dependant as possible, thereby producing the largest possible profits for the oil companies. Those profits are almost entirely dependent on the use of foreign oil, because there is so little left here (unless the state of Colorado is totally destroyed by oil shale mining, as parts of Western Canada are being currently, of course). And so, the President-elect has announced a policy to make the U.S. independent of foreign oil in 10 years (without raping Colorado and blowing the tops off every coal mountain that that gentle industry can find). And you think that the oil industry, and their other extractive-industry relatives, coal and natural gas, are going to take this lying down? Well my friend, you’ve got another think coming. This is a subject to which I will return at some future time.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and a www.TPJmagazine.us Contributing Author; a regular Columnist for BuzzFlash; a Special Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal Online; a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC; and a Featured Writer for Dandelion Saladhttp://dandelionsalad.wordpress.com/.   

9 comments on “Dr. J.’s Commentary: U.S. Energy Policy: A Brief History
  1. Dr Jonas obviously knows well what he’s talking about. His summary of the oil industry’s trajectory in history is impeccable. And I agree completely that the US has and has had for a long time an energy policy, one tying this nation to oil. Where I part ways with the writer is in his (surprisingly) naive belief that Obama and his team—all creatures of high finance and veteran wheeler-dealers in the deepest recesses of the establishment— really mean what they say in terms of facing down the oil industry and creating an alternative energy policy capable of breaking this insane and criminal dependence on petroleum. That, I find hard to believe but would like Dr Jonas to explain his viewpoint and grounds for faith.

  2. I’m afraid Bob Zcy is right. Barack Obama is not a closet radical or courageous visionary ready to do what’s needed to save this country from the looming catastrophes. In assuming the Obama has the interest of the people in his heart and that he may be fall victim to the entreaties of evil advisers representing the corporate state (which leaves Obama off the hook) the author joins the left-liberal crowd exposed in a recent article right here on this blog, about the bankruptcy of Obamian left-liberalism.
    ( The mask is rapidly falling off, but much too late http://www.bestcyrano.org/cyrano/?p=2253)

    Too bad because I’ve grown accustomed to expecting more from this author.

  3. Two excellent comments, and no, I’m not naive. I do know that Obama is a product of the US power elite (see “No Obamallusions on BuzzFlash.com, http://www.buzzflash.com/articles/jonas/122). It is that I am convinced that the majority of the US power elite, other than the extractive industries, realizes that in order to stay in power, it must change its power sources. T. Boone Pickes, who in 2004 funded the Swift Boaters, anyone? Happy Thanksgiving to all, Steve Jonas

  4. And thanks for the kind words about my previous writings, John. Hope that the above may push me back into your good graces,at least somewhat.

  5. Dear Dr Jonas: Thank you for your personal reply. I apologize if my words were rashly formed, as I have been experiencing a mounting sense of despair and anger as one key name after another confirms that Obama may not even approximate the promise of his campaign. Still, enough players in the system MUST realize that something of some substance has to be done to re-legitimate the status quo, as mere deferred promises will soon run out of steam with a majority of the public increasingly alienated from what they perceived as a corrupt and eternally non-responsive government.

    As it is, I went and read your piece on Buzzflash [No Obamallusions…] and, yes, you did enumerate the many areas that Obama’s stance and policies were less than encouraging. As I say, I have read your essays on this venue and others, and have always walked away enriched and armed with new arguments and facts to defend a more just and moral position. So please accept both my gratitude for indispensable work brilliantly done and my apology for suggesting you did not see Obama’s truer colors.

  6. I’m glad someone tells it like it is in connection with an area of such significance for our future (and present) as energy, with vast implications in matters of foreign policy. The Middle East wars are an orgy of immoral dislocation of priorities caused by such misguided and criminal adventures triggered by our dependence on oil–to the enrichment of a puny minority. Thanks for pointing all of this out.

  7. Few times in recent memory have we seen a moment when the situation called for true statesmanship, above class interest, and we get elaborate and carefully crafted demagoguery.

  8. Hello all. Thanks so much to all of you for the very kind words. I am particularly pleased that I am back in John’s good graces! Very much appreciated. For anyone who would like to see my work on a regular basis (CJO and its progeny publish selected numbers) I do have a personal distribution list for my BuzzFlash columns. Send me an email at sjtpj@aol.com and I will be glad to add your name to it. I also publish regularly on The Political Junkies, at TPJmagazine.us. If you would like to see those, plus essays by a range of columnists that we have assembled, just go to the website and sign up at “Be a Junkie,” upper right.

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