Scattershot Bush energy plan mixes good, not so good

--Los Angeles Times - May 18

Posted: Monday, May 21, 2001

President Bush's energy plan is a compendi-um of just about every energy idea, good and bad, to come down the pike in the past 25 years. At times, the former Texas oilman sounded like a born-again environmentalist as he introduced his policy in St. Paul, Minn., Thursday. Well, at least until he got to the part about drilling for oil on the edge of the Arctic Ocean in Alaska and turning nuclear waste into fresh plutonium. He talked at length about the wonders of conservation and alternative power but glossed over the problem of ever-bigger gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles.

With sympathetic words, Bush declared he's doing everything he can to help California through its power crisis. Well, except the one thing that would really help -- imposing a reasonable temporary cap on runaway wholesale electricity costs.

The nation does need a sound energy plan that pinpoints serious problems and offers realistic solutions. We again are becoming too reliant on foreign oil. Power demands have been running ahead of the number of new refineries, generating plants and gas transmission lines. The Bush program, however, ends up as 105 scattershot, unranked recommendations in search of an overall strategy. Bush also makes the mistake of suggesting we can have it all -- abundant energy and a clean environment -- without making any difficult tradeoffs or sacrifices. At the same time, the plan suggests that energy-plant siting regulations can be streamlined without harming the environment. In many cases, that is impossible.

Despite his welcome new openness to conservation and alternative power sources, Bush's underlying emphasis remains on the extraction of more traditional fuels, largely from federal lands. As expected, he proposes opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and has ordered a review of the oil potential of the new national monuments and roadless forest areas set aside by former President Bill Clinton at the end of his term.

Bush's continued insistence on drilling in the Arctic reserve is a flashpoint for environmentalists. Congress is almost certain to reject it. Though the president delighted in claiming the new Arctic drilling would produce as much oil as Saddam Hussein's Iraq, he ignored that even more oil would be saved by applying current auto mileage standards to sport-utility vehicles and light trucks, something that should have been done years ago.

Bush did call for a review of auto mileage standards and adoption of new ones if that is possible without "negatively impacting the U.S. automotive industry." However, auto makers, as he well knows, have never accepted new regulation without first proclaiming it would make cars unaffordable and ruin the industry. As for those 65 million acres of national monuments and roadless forests proposed by Clinton, they contain relatively little recoverable oil and gas. In the five Rocky Mountain states where most of the potential oil and gas are located, 112 million acres of federal land, out of a total of 116 million acres, remain open for leasing.

In fact, an energy boom is under way throughout the country. A record number of oil and gas drilling rigs are working throughout the Rockies and in the Southwest. Billions are being spent on new power plants and gas transmission lines, much of it in Nevada and California, without any need to further reduce environmental safeguards -- market forces at work.

In California, manipulation of the market by a cartel of producers has certainly contributed to outrageous power costs. This perfectly illustrates the need for a balance of market forces and smart regulation.

The nation is on its way to fulfilling many of the energy plan's goals before the first bill is introduced in Congress. With sharper attention to conservation and alternative energy, the specter of crisis would vanish even sooner.

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