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Energy Tide Turns Toward Alternatives--An Op-Ed by Prof. Dan Esty

This piece was originally published in The Hartford Courant on June 27, 2005.

As the Senate prepares to vote on a new energy bill Tuesday, the push for significant energy policy reform has gained a new ally - the American people. In a nation split 50-50 on so many issues, overwhelming majorities say they want more effort made to explore alternative sources of energy.

Yale University's recently released Environmental Poll shows that more than 90 percent of Americans think dependence on foreign oil is a serious problem and almost 70 percent consider it a very serious one. Americans are ready for a bold new commitment to alternatives such as solar energy, wind power and other renewable energy. By big margins they reject more coal power plants or drilling for oil in places such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. More than 9 out of 10 citizens strongly support government mandates to boost the gas mileage of all vehicles.

What is clearly needed is a commitment to an entirely new approach to energy policy. Public frustration is mounting over the war in Iraq and over America's fate being intertwined with undemocratic Middle Eastern governments.

Unlikely coalitions have formed to argue for a new energy agenda that takes into account both the geo-strategic and environmental consequences of fossil fuels. Security hawks such as Jim Woolsey and C. Boyden Gray have joined environmental policy leaders such as John Podesta and Ralph Cavanagh in calling for an alternative energy future. In the past, environmental progress has often been achieved when the issue is linked to other pressing national concerns. Such a moment is upon us, with the need to break free of foreign oil supplies.

The consensus on this point is striking: The sentiments of the American people cross gender and party lines and are consistent in all regions of the country. It doesn't matter whether one is worried about global warming or security, gas prices or protecting oil supply lines; this country's reliance on oil is a losing game.

Sure, an alternative energy base for the country will cost some money - but far less than the war in Iraq. And the price paid in human lives for ongoing entanglement in the Persian Gulf looks increasingly unappealing. Americans are ready to pay for a new energy reality. Nine out of 10 Americans want increased funding for renewable energy research, and 8 out of 10 Americans think hydrogen should be promoted as a vehicle fuel.

On Tuesday, the Senate has the chance to step up these challenges by passing a crucial energy bill. Although the bill is only a small step toward a new energy future, it contains amendments requiring electric companies to get 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and it offers measures to support an 8 billion gallon market for ethanol by 2012.

In addition, the Senate passed a resolution acknowledging that greenhouse gases contribute to global warming. The resolution calls for placing mandatory caps on emissions without significantly harming the U.S. economy.

The American people are clear where they want to go on energy policy. Now it is time to see if Washington can put aside political wrangling and deflect special interest interventions long enough to listen.

Daniel C. Esty is a professor at Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.