More Energy Or A Better Energy Diet?

High energy prices and rolling blackouts have finally sparked a national debate on energy policy

Ebell Op-Ed in Heartland Intellectual Ammunition

High energy prices and rolling blackouts have finally sparked a national debate on energy policy. This debate is long overdue. For eight years, the Clinton-Gore administration quietly pursued energy policies designed to lower production, constrict supplies, and raise prices.

For example, former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore touted natural gas as the fuel of the future . . . while closing off tens of millions of acres of federal land to gas exploration and making it much more difficult to obtain permits for new pipelines. While touting affordable energy, Gore cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to raise the federal gas tax.

Now that these policies have begun to bear fruit, the public is paying attention: A majority of Americans now believe there is an energy crisis. What should the federal government do about it?

The Bush Plan

President George W. Bush has introduced a national energy policy that would reverse many of the energy suppression policies of the Clinton-Gore years. Free-market advocates have been quick to notice its flaws.

It is true the plan contains a number of demand-side conservation proposals and has "a little something" for every special interest, ranging from clean coal technology to solar tax credits.

But these are minor imperfections. The core elements of the plan–designed to get government out of the way so private enterprise can make the investments required to supply Americans' energy needs–are strong.

The plan, produced by a task force chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney, correctly focuses on the regulation-caused bottlenecks in the nation's energy supply systems. If implemented, the plan will make it possible to build, on a large scale, the energy infrastructure so sorely lacking in the U.S. today: new pipelines, transmission lines, refineries, coal-fired power plants, and nuclear power plants.

Most major media outlets have been quick to accuse Bush of pandering to Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Nuke. They clearly misunderstand elementary economics. Increasing energy supplies will not necessarily benefit energy producers. As supply goes up, prices should go down, and low prices often lead to low profits. The chief beneficiaries of more abundant and more affordable energy will be consumers.

Pay More and Use Less?

The environmental left, meanwhile, objects to the President's plan because it does "too little" to encourage energy conservation. That lament resonates strongly with America's intellectual elite, traumatized by the energy crisis of the 1970s and predictions that mankind would soon exhaust the Earth's resources unless we curb our wicked addiction to over-consumption. Even now, the residual guilt about using energy remains potent.

Most Americans, however, do not want to pay more for energy or to use less of it. That's why anti-growth environmentalists, who have been preaching the virtues of higher energy prices for decades, have changed their tune. Now, they complain about price-gouging and call for price caps on electricity, though they have yet to explain how price caps will encourage production or discourage consumption.

If you want to see the result of the left's policies, look at California. The state's government has forced one conservation measure after another for decades. Consequently, Californians now consume less electricity per person than any other state. But since Californians also resisted new power plants and insisted on retail price caps, they now face the ultimate form of conservation: rationing, also known as rolling blackouts.

While leading congressional Democrats have joined the chorus for price caps and conservation rather than production, they are being just as careful as Clinton and Gore were to conceal their real agenda. House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt was driven to a press conference held at a Capitol Hill Exxon station to introduce the Democrats' alternative energy plan–in a Chevy Suburban, one of the biggest SUVs. When asked about this, Gephardt's press secretary replied, "We don't say anything about changing people's lifestyles."

While the Democrats' energy plan may not be about changing the lifestyles of important people like Dick Gephardt, it is entirely about forcing most people to use less energy. It would, for example, raise automobile fuel efficiency standards–meaning most people would be forced to buy smaller, less comfortable, less safe automobiles.

Those are the two sides of our national energy debate. May the better arguments win.

Copyright © 2001 The Heartland Institute