The Future of Energy Policy

A sign meaning "Caution" is seen in front of a cooling tower of a German nuclear power plant in Essenbach, Germany, April 02, 2011. Michaela Rehle / Reuters


A century ago, Lord Selborne, the first lord of the Admiralty, dismissed the idea of fueling the British navy with something other than coal, which the island nation had in great abundance. "The substitution of oil for coal is impossible," he pronounced, "because oil does not exist in this world in sufficient quantities." Seven years later, the young Winston Churchill was appointed first lord and charged with winning the escalating Anglo-German race for naval superiority. As Daniel Yergin chronicled in The Prize, Churchill saw that oil would increase ship speed and reduce refueling time -- key strategic advantages -- and ordered oil-burning battleships to be built, committing the navy to this new fuel. Churchill's was a strategic choice, bold, creative, and farsighted. The energy choices the world faces today are no less consequential, and America's response must be as insightful.

Energy is fundamental to U.S. domestic prosperity and national security. In fact, the complex ties between energy and U.S. national interests have drawn tighter over time. The advent of globalization, the growing gap between rich and poor, the war on terrorism, and the need to safeguard the earth's environment are all intertwined with energy concerns.

The profound changes of recent decades and the pressing challenges of the twenty-first century warrant recognizing energy's central role in America's future and the need for much more ambitious and creative approaches. Yet the current debate about U.S. energy policy is mainly about tax breaks for expanded production, access to public lands, and nuances of electricity regulation -- difficult issues all, but inadequate for the larger challenges the United States faces. The staleness of the policy dialogue reflects a failure to recognize the importance of energy to the issues it affects: defense and homeland security, the economy, and the environment. What is needed is a purposeful, strategic energy policy, not a grab bag drawn from interest-group wish lists.

U.S. energy policies to date have failed to address three great

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