Natural gas is in scarce supply. Crude-oil production is winding down. The last nuclear power plant was ordered in July 1973. No meaningful alternative fuels exist. In short, Americans are heading toward their first major energy crunch since the 1970s. The early warning sign: a shortage of natural gas last winter sent home-heating bills spiraling upward. They are expected to keep rising. Higher prices are erasing jobs. The effects will ripple through the economy.
Abundant supplies of crude oil worldwide are no bargain either. Americans are paying inflated prices for gasoline and other petroleum products. The bloated bills will more than wipe out the savings from this year's multibillion-dollar tax cut. For all this, you can thank more than three decades of bungled energy policies by a succession of Congresses and Presidents. Get ready for more bungling.
If all goes according to plan, the U.S. Senate in the next few weeks will follow the House and approve the latest in a long line of national energy policies. This one incorporates a favorite initiative of President George W. Bush's--the hydrogen-powered car. In his State of the Union address in January, the President proposed "$1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles." As the President explained, his goal was "to promote energy independence ... in ways that generations before us could not have imagined."
Democrats joined euphoric Republicans in signing on to the proposal. "The supply of hydrogen is inexhaustible," Senator Byron Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, told his colleagues. "Hydrogen is in water. You can take the energy from the wind and use the electricity in the process of electrolysis, separate the hydrogen from the oxygen and store the hydrogen and use it in vehicles. The fact is, hydrogen is ubiquitous. It is everywhere."
Was this a rare instance of the two parties working together in Washington for the good of the country? Far from it. They've been doing this energy dance off and on for 30 years.
At the time of the first energy crisis, in 1974, President Richard M. Nixon put forth Project Independence to end American reliance on foreign oil through a series of energy programs, among them "hydrogen-fueled vehicles" that could be developed "to enable a shift away from oil." Takeoff date for the new technology: 1990. Members of Congress were enthusiastic about the hydrogen car then too. "Hydrogen offers us great potential as a fuel for the future," said Representative Charles Vanik, Ohio Democrat. Representative Robert Wilson, a California Republican, was equally excited: "We can now look forward to running our automobiles on water."