Energy Policy Astray

Energy Policy Astray

Ebell Op-Ed in The Washington Times
September 24, 2002

Whether Americans will continue to enjoy abundant supplies of affordable energy in coming decades depends on negotiations in a House-Senate conference committee that will likely climax in the next fortnight. A serious policy debate will not determine the outcome. Instead, it all hinges on whether White House officials are so eager to get an energy bill — any energy bill — that they will cave in to the demands of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and Democratic presidential hopefuls Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. The stakes are so high because the House- and Senate-passed versions of the energy bill, H. R. 4, could not be more different. The House bill actually contains, admittedly amongst a lot of wasteful federal spending, measures that will help to increase energy supplies and to encourage the huge private capital investments necessary to rebuild America's aging, inadequate energy supply infrastructure. The Senate's energy bill is really an anti-energy bill. Nearly every provision creates a new government office, program or regulation designed to raise energy prices, force down energy use, or lay the groundwork for implementing the Kyoto global warming treaty. The House bill would, for example, get rid of a number of regulatory bottlenecks that stymie construction of needed new pipelines and transmission lines. It also would allow oil and gas exploration on 2,000 acres of the coastal plain of the 19-million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which the U. S. Geological Survey estimates contains between 5.7 billion and 16 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil. Sixteen billion barrels is equivalent to 30 years of imports from Saudi Arabia, our largest foreign supplier. On the other hand, the Senate version, which was written not by the Energy Committee but by Majority Leader Daschle, would raise significantly both gasoline and electricity prices. It mandates much higher use of ethanol in gasoline. Ethanol is roughly twice as expensive as petroleum-based fuels. It would take 16 million acres planted to corn, an area larger than West Virginia, to produce the 5 billion gallons of ethanol a year required by the Senate bill, according to government estimates. The Senate bill would also require privately owned utilities to get 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, not including hydropower, by 2020. One renewable source, wind power, has been getting cheaper, but is still considerably more expensive than natural gas or coal-fired power plants and is undependable because the wind doesn't blow on demand. The renewables requirement is simply a payoff to special interests to be paid for by consumers. The Senate bill can be viewed as the first move in the presidential campaigns of both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lieberman. By giving the environmental pressure groups everything on their global-warming wish lists, they hope to tie up official environmental endorsements for 2004 and, if they're lucky, head off another Green Party campaign by Ralph Nader. During the disastrous debate on the Senate floor this spring, embattled Senate conservatives could have used a lot of help from the White House.  Instead, what they got was the constant refrain, "Don't worry, we will fix it in conference," from several White House officials. Now, it's time to fix it in conference, and so far the signs from the White House are not good. A House staff member in the middle of the negotiations commented that until now the White House has been largely missing in action. Much more worrying is the possibility, raised by several Senate and House staff members, that when push comes to shove, the White House will actually be pushing in the wrong direction. There are two reasons why this fear is plausible. First, part of the White House's political strategy since September 11, 2001, has been to avoid nasty disagreements over domestic policy issues with congressional Democrats. Petty partisan bickering looks unseemly in wartime. Consequently, capitulating to the Democrats in Congress has become standard operating procedure on the domestic front. Second, there are political advisers in the White House who think the energy bill provides an opportunity to demonstrate bipartisan effectiveness, while checking off one of the president's main campaign pledges. The problem is that the only way to get to a signing ceremony is to give up the president's energy plan and replace it with a big chunk of the environmentalists' anti-energy, anti-consumer agenda. There are others in the administration, led by Vice President Richard Cheney, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, and National Economic Council Director Larry Lindsey, who think that no energy bill is much better than what Sens. Daschle, Kerry and Lieberman are trying to foist on the nation. They are correct. Let us hope their view prevails.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />