Eliot Spitzer takes a swing at Dick Cheney

The governor of New York says there are some simple things that the vice president doesn't understand about energy policy.

Published April 20, 2007 4:25PM (EDT)

Looks like New York is grabbing some of that California-style clean energy action. On Thursday, Gov. Eliot Spitzer gave a speech touting his plans to increase energy efficiency, accelerate the construction of low-, or no-emission, power plants and combat global warming.

If you don't want to read the entire speech, the Oil Drum offers a good summary. But the best part is too good not to repeat here.

In early 2001, the Bush Administration released its energy plan, which largely dismissed the importance of energy efficiency. When questioned about this, Vice President Cheney replied: "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

Look around at our nation's energy market and you will see where this logic has led us: an ever-increasing demand for energy that has caused high energy prices, brownouts and blackouts, an increasing dependence on foreign oil, and global climate change.

I will admit that the Vice President's skepticism about the benefits of efficiency may have made sense in 1970, when most people believed energy efficiency meant nothing more than wearing more sweaters in the winter. But technology has marched on and, in the intervening years, the marginal cost of energy efficiency has plummeted while the marginal cost of energy generation has shot up.

In terms of dollars and cents, it now costs one-third as much to save a given amount of energy through efficiency programs as it does to produce the same amount of energy by building a new power plant. The fact is that energy efficiency now makes economic sense.

This is the logic that the Vice President misses -- the simple idea that the cheapest and cleanest power plant in the world is the one you never have to build.

A cynic might be inclined to point out that the vice president is not a stupid man, and probably does understand that increased energy efficiency decreases consumption. A cynic might wonder whether Cheney's sneer at "personal virtue" was just an effort to disguise his real mandate, which is to serve the interests of the energy industry lobby. Energy companies generally don't like decreased consumption because it usually means decreased profits. (Unless profits have been decoupled from consumption, as Spitzer is proposing to do in New York.)

But never mind all that. With both California and New York making a serious effort to address energy issues, the rest of the nation, and possibly the world, will have good examples to follow.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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