Energizing the nation

Production line: Bush program plays to oil-patch producers, but opens debate on U.S. energy future.

May 21, 2001

THE ENERGY PLAN unveiled last week by President Bush is much more an accommodation of the fossil-fuel industries than a blueprint for ensuring future supplies.

The report, crafted by fellow oilman Vice President Cheney, will do little to meet short-term price and supply dislocations. Already, the market is responding. Refinery output is rising, more oil and natural gas wells are being drilled and power plants are being built. And, yes, higher prices are forcing Americans toward conservation.

Mr. Bush should push the OPEC oil cartel to expand production, which would relieve supply and pricing pressures. The administration must recognize that oil is a fungible world commodity; U.S. supply (and price) is not dependent on domestic production, no matter Mr. Bush's personal ties. Relaxing environmental standards and inciting exploitation of protected natural areas to benefit producers are not sound national policy.

In response to uneven regional power shortages, the president's program envisions a national electric power system. Transmission lines and pipelines will get needed attention. Federal agencies will expedite permits for new plants; 1,300 of them -- many fueled by questionable "clean coal" technology -- will be needed over the next 20 years, the report projects. But there is no call for price caps and other market interference.

Nuclear power would get a boost through tax incentives, as a way to diversify national energy production and reduce the output of global warming gases. Nuclear plants, such as Calvert Cliffs, supply 20 percent of the nation's electricity, but no new plant has been built in 30 years, amid concerns about safety and disposal of radioactive waste fuel.

The Bush program, however, offers no answer to the mounting waste disposal problem except reviving the dangerous, discarded idea of reprocessing spent fuel.

Tax credits for renewable energy and hybrid-power cars seem more a sop to the president's critics than enthusiastic endorsement of moving toward greater reliance on non-carbon fuels. Mr. Bush has slashed research funding for alternative energy systems, placing his firm belief in expanded domestic exploration and production of oil, coal and gas.

Whiny Californians, who equally gloated about their environmental freeze on power plants and their excessive high-tech economy, will get no immediate relief from the plan. That state's unrealistic system of power deregulation and price controls must be restructured internally, without federal intervention.

The president's plan opens a national debate on energy needs and programs, few of which can be implemented without congressional support.

What remains to be addressed are such vital issues as the implementation of energy efficiency and conservation measures.

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