Most of the commentary on Bush’s state of the union speech centred on his rather subdued delivery, and on the symbolic significance of various sections of the live audience’s applause after this line and silence after that one. Few commented on the fact that, for a president who has been criticized for being anti-environment (largely because he has strong connections to the “oil industry” and has shown no interest in the Kyoto treaty), Bush was explicit in his support for two technological approaches to reducing air emissions: nuclear power and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
Most of those who did notice Bush’s conflation of energy and environment policy tended to focus on his support for ethanol. There aren’t many American politicians, especially among those who seek a high national profile, who oppose subsidies for ethanol. There is a practical political reason for this. It’s not a good idea to alienate the farm vote (most U.S. ethanol is made from corn); doing so could cost a Presidential aspirant the Iowa Caucus.
It might sound a bit odd for the president to get this specific in a general speech. Nuclear energy, plug-in hybrids, and ethanol mean little to anyone other than policy wonks. Why mention them at all? Were Bush’s references to these specific technologies a political gesture? Of course they were. Influential Democrats like Hilary Clinton, Tom Carper, and Bill Richardson have become strong vocal supporters of nuclear energy. This signals a major shift in the partisan dynamics surrounding this issue.
It is significant that other influential Democrats, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who sat stone-faced while Bush touted nuclear and plug-ins) are less enthusiastic about these technologies. Bush knows this, and his references to nuclear and hybrids were an attempt to divide and rule.
But this political maneuver is justified because it is in the service of sound policy. Bush has chosen to support two technological approaches that, combined, represent by far the best way to reduce emissions in the medium and long term. Nuclear is one of the two proven ways to dispatch huge amounts of emission-free electricity to a modern power grid (conventional hydro is the other). And plug-in hybrids (which improve on existing hybrids like the Toyota Prius by allowing you to keep the battery charged with power from the grid; see the California Cars Initiative and HybridCars) are the most likely technological route to reducing auto emissions.
It’s good to see Canada’s federal government supporting at least one of these technological approaches. Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn has been talking up nuclear power in nearly every speech and interview since last week’s flurry of Conservative environment announcements. Support for hybrid vehicles, or at least an acknowledgement that they are the technological pony to bet on, would put Canada on exactly the right course to major emission reductions.
What form should this support take? I have been pushing the case for sales tax credits for hybrid cars, and a range of measures (including power production tax credits) for nuclear power and clean coal. I’ll take this up again in my next post. Stay tuned.