If you could wave a magic wand, and transition the world away from fossil fuels, Americans would instantly be safer. Oil and gas development has often been associated with autocracy and corruption. Governments in countries such as Russia and Iran have used oil and gas to threaten neighbors and fund terrorism. Corruption, autocracy, and terrorism are a persistent threat to nations that stand on the rule of law.
A world in which oil and gas money has less power is a world that will likely have less corruption, autocracy, and terror. That world will be a safer world for America. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, represents Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, represents South Carolina in the U.S. Senate. I am going to ask you to consider some ideas that will probably initially strike you as being largely unworkable and possibly even un-American and certainly anti-capitalist, so I am going to ask you for the favor of your attention for a few minutes, even when you might be inclined to tune me out. I am not going to shock you initially, in fact, I am going to try to sneak up on you through historical illustrations.
The idea of a transcontinental railroad was first proposed in Congress in 1845 but it wasn’t considered practical or possible at that time. But two years into the Civil War, an amazingly strange time to propose a major infrastructure project, President Lincoln signed the act that engaged two competing railroad companies to start building lines, one starting on the west coast and headed east, and the other on the east coast headed west.
The rivals were richly rewarded for each mile of track they completed and no firm point for meeting was initially set, giving both companies huge incentives to build as fast as possible so that they could be paid more for having constructed more miles of railroad.
Prior to constructing the railroad, it was not only time consuming and very dangerous to travel from the east coast to the west, but it was expensive, costing about $1000 even in 1860. When the railroad was finished, that passage could be accomplished in a few days at a cost of about $150.
The project created jobs, especially for Civil War veterans, it created businesses and commerce and was responsible for the growth of cities and towns from coast to coast. It was expensive and it became the opportunity for all kinds of crime and exploitation, especially of Chinese labor, and it inspired the opening of several casinos and brothels, but, in the end, the transcontinental railroad helped to save the union and brought the United States into the modern era.
It had seemed like an impossible idea but once we decided to do it, we accomplished the impossible and the benefits of it changed America. In another example of America doing the impossible, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, American manufacturing was making cars, toys, and home appliances but within a month of that surprise attack, President Roosevelt had established the War Production Board which was tasked with taking over American manufacturing plants and raw materials, rationing food and lots of petroleum and oil products, so that we could produce the things needed by the war effort.
There wasn’t time to build entirely new and different manufacturing facilities and we couldn’t produce consumable goods while making guns, uniforms, airplanes, tanks, and ships. It was expensive and almost everyone in the country had to sacrifice a lot of comfort and consumables, but we not only provided major force to win the war against fascism but almost every field of science and manufacturing went into rapid evolution such as had never been seen before. Of course, such an effort changed the workplace, the workforce, and the sociology of the country.
After the war, years of suppressed consumer demands along with advances in the manufacture and technology of the automobile, resulted in a boom in the popularity of cars so that people began to transition from train travel to the family car. 1956 is famous, partially because I was born in August of that year, but even more because that summer, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act that began construction of our interstate highway system.
The Federal Aid Highway Act was a jobs bill, to be sure, but Eisenhower also wanted to make travel by automobile safer, faster, and, as an added benefit, provide for more rapid evacuation of major cities in the event of a nuclear war. Eisenhower kinda thought that way. The remnant of my family’s pre-Civil War plantation was eventually divided into three parcels of land by the construction of interstate highways through Kentucky. My family had no way to object to this economic blow because, to build an interstate highway system, land was taken for the public good.
In each of these three examples, the normal rules and laws about property ownership, commerce and self-determination were suspended, for a time, in order to serve the larger good of the nation and, in many ways, the whole world. The transcontinental railroad, the wartime manufacturing necessary to win World War II, and the construction of the interstate highway system could not have been accomplished by the normal rules of the marketplace.
You cannot accomplish the seemingly impossible, simply by employing old skills and habits. I hope that this fact is obvious to all of us. Major, world changing, technology improving, and global economy stimulating accomplishments call for suspending the status quo in order to achieve such important transformations. Let the people say, “Amen.”
Last month, I promised you a bit of a rant about how the world was finding it difficult to wean itself off of Russian oil and natural gas. The Russian economy, and hence its ability to conduct war against her neighbors, is dependent upon income from the sale of its fossil fuels. The late Senator John McCain once called Russia, “Nothing but a gas station with nuclear weapons.” And, honestly, in lots of ways, though we often talk about Putin dreaming of re-forming the former Soviet Union, I don’t think that is what he is really interested in. Russia is no longer a big communist government trying to create equality and efficiency. It has become a kleptocracy in which Putin and a handful of necessary powerful people are exploiting Russia’s natural resources to make themselves unspeakably rich.
In the early 1990’s there was a rush on college campuses to offer more courses in Russian as businesspeople set their sights on new opportunities to form alliances in Russia to open a whole new market; but corruption asserted itself so firmly in those years of “Perestroika” that almost everyone gave up on getting rich quick in a newly opened Russia. The wealth was swept up by just a few oligarchs and that is where it has stayed. I don’t think there is any nefarious idealism guiding Putin’s attempts at expansion. I think that it is much more simple. It is greed. And greed lasts longer than idealism. Even though his invasion of Ukraine has gone horribly, costing him global credibility, and using up enormous military assets and lives, my fear is that he will just hang in there, keeping the conflict going until the West gets bored with it, starts paying attention to more of the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp stories in the news, and he may take Ukraine simply by persistent terrorism. Even my typically erudite audience already has more opinions about whether it was Depp or Heard who pooped in the sheets than they know about the oil pipelines in Europe and which nations are the most dependent on Russian oil and gas.
Looking back on the past century, it becomes clear that we never should have given up on trains and other forms of mass transit. Our love affair with automobiles has been disastrous for the environment and for many families’ personal economy. But you cannot change the nature of transportation and home heating energy immediately. We have known for two generations that we needed to stop using fossil fuels and to develop better, more efficient, and more affordable renewable forms of energy but we have moved in that direction at a snail’s pace.
The money has been in oil, gasoline, natural gas, and, to some extent, coal. And so, big corporations, with their puppet strings tied to the governments of the world, have managed to control the evolution of energy technology so that the demand for energy keeps going up but the ways of getting the energy remained with fossil fuels.
In the 1970’s President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House. They were not great solar panels, and they were not much help, but they were a symbol, a gesture towards the future. They were an honest and much needed lesson to tell Americans that we would one day run out of oil if burning it didn’t kill us first, and that we needed to harness the power of the sun. When Ronald Regan took office in 1981, he had the solar panels taken down from the White House and people cheered that move as if giving reality the finger would suddenly increase the supply of oil. Similarly, 40 years later, when Donald Trump was elected president, he promised to restore coal mining jobs and to resist all changes towards renewable energy.
C. S. Lewis said that a mad man cannot put out the light of the sun simply by writing the word “darkness” on his cell walls. But a large portion of the American public believes that if we simply refuse to give up on petroleum and coal, that it will never run out and that it won’t really kill us. Now the slow advance of technology has caught up to us. Solar power is cheaper than power produced by oil and gas. And, ironically, the new electric trucks are faster and have more towing power than their gas and diesel forbearers. The problem is, we just have not made the transition a priority. We have slow walked an evolution that is primarily needed to save the ecology of our planet, and we have delayed the cost savings of harvesting the energy that falls from the sky every day.
Now we realize that virtually all terrorism that gave us 9-11, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all comes from oil and gas money. If we had paid attention to what Carter was trying to tell us more than 40 years ago, the capture of the US Embassy in Tehran might have been the last problem with terrorism we ever would have faced. Every time that you and I pull up to a gas station to fill the tank of our SUVs, we are sending money to terrorist states. Sure, some oil comes from the US and Canada, and some comes from allies, but the oil market is like one big pot. None of us knows where the gas in our cars originated with any certainty and whether it came from Iran or Oklahoma, it is still helping to prop up a market that funds global terrorism and we can and must stop that massive transfer of wealth.
We can’t suddenly change our energy sources in time to make Russia leave Ukraine next month. And, as sure as I am standing here, before my daughter puts me in a nursing home, I will be getting around town in a self-driving, electric car that won’t talk back to me and tell me that I don’t need to go get an Andy’s ice cream again this evening. The question is, will that self-driving car be driving me for my pecan fudge Sundae in five years or fifteen years? How much longer are we willing to send trillions of dollars from western democracies to terrorist states every year? Should we slow walk it over the next 15 to 20 years or should we go into a war-time footing and build wind turbines, solar farms, and the necessary infrastructure of transfer lines to move electricity around the country over the next four or five years, with the kind of energy we put into winning WWII or like building the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highway system? What will Russia do over the next decade if we keep giving them tens of trillions of dollars for their oil and gas?
What would it take for us to get this transformation done over the next three or four years? It could be done and it wouldn’t even be hard. We could harvest enough sunlight in Arizona and enough wind energy in Kansas and Oklahoma to power our entire nation. We just have to build the infrastructure to capture the energy and the transfer lines to move the electricity around the country. As soon as we have done this, it will start saving American households about $5000 per year. Why haven’t we done it? How can we break the political influence of the energy industry to do what we need to do to stop funding terrorism and rescue our planet from global climate change?
Well, my friends, it is simple. All that we have to do is nationalize the oil and gas companies. I know that sounds like socialism, or for Fox News viewers, it sounds like communism, since they don’t know the difference, but the United States has a long history of nationalizing industries that actively work against the common good of the nation.
Joe Biden proposed an infrastructure bill aimed at greening the economy which would have made a great stride in the direction of renewable energy but every Republican in the Senate voted against it, along with the allegedly Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, who, by the way receives more political donations from fossil fuel industries than anyone else in the Senate, more than $400,000 last year. Of course, even that absurd figure is less than his personal profits from his coal investments. His vote is bought and paid for. Russia is not the only kleptocracy in the world. We have to see this issue as a crisis, a crisis of preventing destruction of the environment and the crisis of future terrorism and illegal wars.
During WW I, President Woodrow Wilson, in order to support the war effort, nationalized our nation’s rail roads, our phone companies, and our telegraph operators. He also nationalized all of the radio stations. They were given back after the war, but they were operated by the federal government during the war. During WW II, President Roosevelt nationalized airplane manufacture, gun manufacturers, and more than 3000 mines, along with the rail roads and a number of oil companies. Richard Nixon created Amtrak by nationalizing several failing passenger rail companies. After 9-11, President George W. Bush nationalized airline security, creating the TSA which we all still hate today. He didn’t even bother buying up the existing security businesses, he just shut them down and replaced them because it was in our national interests to do so. In 2008, with the economic crash, Bush nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to stabilize the housing industry.
We could, for less money than Trump gave out as tax cuts to billionaires, buy up the entire American oil industry and start to manage them in a way to reduce fossil fuels and increase sustainable energy sources so that, in a few years, we can all go to bed in our cars and tell it to take us to the beach in Florida and just wake up, have brunch, and walk out onto the white sand beaches of the Red Neck Riviera. . . and enjoy a little Russian vodka and Russian caviar because Russia no longer has a market for their oil, gas, or coal. We can do it, and what is better, we could do it without a single Republican vote. I don’t know if Biden has the political courage to do it, but, that’s what I would do, which is why you should have elected me in 2020.
Crossposted from Emerging Church.