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Opinion: Columnists

Electricity for Africa initiative could help make 'High-Energy Planet' vision a reality

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Opinion,Ron Arnold,Columnists,Foreign Aid,Africa,Electricity,Uganda,Mozambique

If all goes smoothly, President Obama will be able to sign a landmark bipartisan energy-for-Africa bill when more than 40 African heads of state - all looking to attract more U.S. investment for their economies - convene at the White House for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit on Aug. 5 and 6.

Two bills in Congress are waiting in the wings for their high voltage debut - the "Electrify Africa" measure (HR 2548), which has passed the House of Representatives and the Senate's companion “Energize Africa” bill (S 2508), which is ready for a floor vote. Both bills abandon yesterday's foreign aid handouts and propose only private sector-based incentives such as loans, guarantees, and political risk insurance as a shock absorber for U.S. businesses willing to enter frontier African markets.

The mere possibility of an energy-for-Africa bill with the president's signature on it is already sparking angry outbursts from Obama's political base. That's bizarre but predictable - congressional action would give Obama a big boost for his June 30, 2013, "Power Africa" initiative, which - amazingly - is an “all of the above” energy program and not one of those weasel-worded “all except fossil fuels” shams the White House usually perpetrates. The White House fact sheet specifically said, “Power Africa will partner with Uganda and Mozambique on responsible oil and gas resources management.” It was silent about coal, which is plentiful in Africa.

When Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz touts his department's "Beyond the Grid" initiative to encourage greenie-approved off-grid and small-scale energy projects, he takes care to avoid disparaging fossil fuels because they're part of Obama's Power Africa plan.

Obama's Big Green base is furious that a measly president of the United States would dare to thwart their exalted global mission to force people in developing nations to live off-grid with only the energy for two lightbulbs, a fan and a radio - a standard measure of “energy access” used by the U.N.'s callous “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative.

A recent Sierra Club report, “Clean Energy Services for All,” defines energy access for poor nations as living on 0.15 percent of the average Californian's annual usage, according to several critiques. Sierra Clubbers, please lead by example.

The Sierra Club's sourpuss misers got a nasty slapdown in June from the Breakthrough Institute, a brainstorming enterprise formed in 2004 by Big Green bad boys Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. The unknown pair published a provocative essay titled "The Death of Environmentalism" - drubbing everything wrong with mainstream environmentalism - and presented all the dirty laundry at the annual retreat of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. They weren't unknown afterward.

They have matured wonderfully into welcome thought leaders with their April publication, "Our High Energy Planet -- A Climate Pragmatism Project." In the past I have disparaged some of their more leftward shenanigans, so I offer the following quote from their executive summary as part contrition, part admiration:

“Today, over 1 billion people around the world — 500 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa alone — lack access to electricity. Nearly 3 billion people cook over open fires fueled by wood, dung, coal, or charcoal. This energy poverty presents a significant hurdle to achieving development goals of health, prosperity, and a livable environment.”

I have friends in sub-Saharan Africa, from my days working with leaders of the Congress of Racial Equality, two of whom run CORE Uganda, Fiona Kobusingye and her husband Cyril Boynes. Kobusingye is also an outspoken promoter of DDT sprays as coordinator of Uganda’s Kill Malarial Mosquitoes Now Brigade. She is a victim of malaria herself, requiring lifelong medical treatment — I was seated next to Fiona at a 2004 conference in New York City when she suffered an attack and went to a hospital where none of the doctors had ever seen malaria — and she has lost many cherished family members to the disease.

I asked CORE’s national chairman, Roy Innis, how he felt about the two energy-for-Africa bills now in Congress. Although best known for his activism in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he is also a long-time champion of energy access for the disadvantaged — and author of "Energy Keepers, Energy Killers: The New Civil Rights Battle."

Innis said, “A short visit to most of Africa reveals a crushing shortage of controlled and developed energy. It appears that on this legislation, HR 2548 and S 2508, we can avoid the usual fights that bogged down the legislative branch. We hope that the executive branch can follow.”

CORE Uganda hopes so in particular. The Ugandan census of 2002 reported that 7.7 percent of households used electricity for lighting (only 2.6 percent of rural households), with 74.8 percent of households using "tadooba," a form of paraffin candle, for lighting. Most tourist areas need backup generators because of grid failures. In 2002, the network fed by hydroelectric dams on Lake Victoria provided power to only 33 of the 54 districts of Uganda. Things have improved with diesel-fueled power turbines and co-generation from sugar works, bringing most numbers up about 50 percent since 2002. And in February, the Ugandan Ministry of Energy signed a deal with three European – not American – oil companies to develop its petroleum reserves estimated at over 3.5 billion barrels, based on limited drilling and testing.

Assuming that Congress does the right thing and puts an energy-for-Africa bill on Obama's desk soon, the new law and his Power Africa initiative may together have the momentum to steamroller the would-be energy-starvation despots of the world into the frozen darkness of Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell and lift the Breakthrough Institute's report title into global reality - "Our High-Energy Planet."

RON ARNOLD, a Washington Examiner columnist, is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.
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