A Congressional Waste of Energy, by Iain Murray

If it seems it has been a long time since Congress embarked upon comprehensive energy legislation, that’s because it has. It was early in President Bush’s first term that the House and Senate set about the task of crafting a bill that would make energy cheaper and more accessible to Americans. Several years later, the Senate is on the verge of adding provisions to an already pork-stuffed bill that would make energy more expensive and less accessible to Americans. If they succeed, the House will kill the bill dead … and serve it right.

One of the reasons why an energy bill has taken so long to craft is that every special interest imaginable has stuck its oar in. For instance, both House and Senate versions of the current bill contain measures to mandate the addition of ethanol to gasoline. Ethanol, largely derived from corn, costs much more than the equivalent amount of gasoline and provides less energy (which explains why Archer Daniels Midland and other ethanol producers need Washington to force its product on the driving public). Gas prices have been rocketing over the past year and the ethanol provisions can only make matters worse.

Yet the ethanol provisions, the $23 billion of largesse to the hydrogen fuel cell industry and the massive subsidies to industries that either don’t need them or are just plain uneconomic all pale into insignificance compared to what Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. (encouraged by Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M.), is cooking up on global warming.

Bingaman has decided to offer an amendment based on the findings of the self-styled National Commission on Energy Policy, which was co-chaired by the CEO of Exelon, a large nuclear power company. Exelon also happened to be the largest contributor to Bingaman’s successful 2000 election campaign, according to opensecrets.org. It might, therefore, not be surprising that the Bingaman amendment would increase operating costs for Exelon’s competitors that generate electricity from coal and gas.

The amendment puts a cap on the use of coal, oil and natural gas, which together provide 85 percent of the energy we use. This cap will go down over time, so that producers and consumers will have to pay higher and higher taxes to the government in order to be allowed to use carbon-based energy. The result will be job losses, as the Bingaman amendment recognizes in its language on unemployment assistance.

The supposed justification for the Bingaman amendment is to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that burning those fossil fuels generates, all in the name of combating global warming. The only trouble is the amendment will have no discernable impact on the global temperature, reducing potential future warming by only a few hundredths of a degree. That’s why Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the leading campaigners for action on global warming in the Senate and sponsor of a competing amendment, called the measure “a fig leaf and a joke.”

The Bingaman amendment, like the McCain amendment, would probably be defeated in the normal course of events, but Domenici toyed with the idea of co-sponsoring it. The credibility he has lent the amendment just by considering it may encourage some wavering GOP senators to support it. Its passage would be a disaster, not just for the coal miners and energy consumers it slaps in the face, but for the energy bill as well.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who will lead the House side in the conference between chambers that will craft a compromise energy bill, has already said he will not countenance any global warming measures that try to cap energy use. The Bingaman amendment is almost certainly a deal-breaker in trying to reach agreement with the House.

If Domenici comes to his senses and moves to defeat the Bingaman amendment on the Senate floor, we may still have a chance of getting an energy bill with a few good things for the consumer. Otherwise, this colossal bill will have been a colossal waste of energy.