Energy: a Supply-Side Tilt

February 21, 1991

What we have in President Bush's long-awaited energy program is a failure to communicate. His Energy Department conducted hearings in 48 states, in 18 months talking to 448 witnesses and poring over 200,000 pages of documents. What was said, by witnesses and members of Congress on both sides of the partisan aisle, convinced some Bush aides that conservation and environmental concerns had reached high status on the public's agenda. Energy Secretary James Watkins, nobody's description of a card-carrying Green, included several major energy-saving plans in his recommendations, but (and here's the disconnect) those were deleted in the White House's final proposals.

What's left are plans to boost domestic oil production and provide new encouragement for nuclear power, hydroelectric power and expanded natural gas exploration. The last world-class domestic oil find, Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, is already dwindling after only 13 years' draining. Mr. Bush's Interior Department has long been a proponent of opening up Alaska National Wildlife Reserve to exploration, but even its best estimates show an expected reservoir of 3.6 billion barrels of oil.

That's a third the size of Prudhoe Bay, not enough to dent imports that provide half this country's 17.3 million barrel-a-day oil use. Hydroelectric power is clean, but the most productive sites have long been harnessed. Drilling for oil in marginal basins, or prospecting for gas in environmentally sensitive areas will not be politically popular. And nuclear power carries its own baggage: no new plants have been planned in a decade.

What Mr. Bush could have done is to supply some of the incentive Americans lack when gasoline is plentiful: Boost the excise tax to help pay for highway and mass-transit initiatives in a time when deep deficits restrict necessary spending. Support his Energy secretary on improving the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard for cars, helping to curb the counter-attack of the gas-guzzlers. Establish conservation standards for electric lights and exempt public utilities' efficiency rebates from taxation. And provide tax credits for electric power produced from solar, thermal and other renewable energy sources.

Congress will surely put some of those proposals back into the energy mix when Mr. Bush's bill enters debate. It would have been nice, however, to see the president accept that demand-side incentives need attention in the energy war as much as in the drug war.

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