Energetic sell-out

October 01, 2003

OUR ELECTRICITY grid is held together with bobby pins and baling wire. The Middle East oil cartel is still kicking sand in our face. Our skies and seas are choked with pollution from fossil fuels.

And yet, the lawmakers in Washington promising a comprehensive new energy policy are renewing their tired, old campaign to drill in Alaska's wildlife refuge, the nation's last pristine oasis.

So 20th century, so counterproductive, so not going to happen is this proposition that it looks like a diversionary tactic designed to call attention away from the rest of the energy bill, which is only slightly less awful.

At a time when the top energy priorities should be modernizing aging infrastructure, encouraging conservation and developing new sources that are safe, clean and renewable, the bill being written by top advocates of the energy industry's old guard heads almost entirely in the opposite direction.

New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici and Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin are working behind closed doors on a take-it-or-leave-it package that is primarily a payoff - including up to $18 billion in federal subsidies - to energy industry lobbyists with the most political clout. Oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear power, even corn processors who make ethanol, all are in line for generous help from the taxpayers.

Sensitive public lands outside Alaska would also be opened to oil and gas exploration, including coastal waters.

Meanwhile, a Senate provision that would have required most utilities to increase the amount of electricity generated by wind, solar, hydro and other renewable sources to 10 percent by 2020 has been dropped. And instead of raising the current inadequate vehicle fuel efficiency standards, the measure creates loopholes that lower them.

Among the energy bill's few redeeming features is a provision that would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission power to enforce reliability standards across the national power grid, rather than relying on voluntary compliance. The measure also wisely favors an Alaskan route for a new natural gas pipeline, rather than a more disruptive Canadian path.

Congress won't be able to choose among the giant bill's myriad provisions, though, once Mr. Domenici and Mr. Tauzin present the legislation for an up-or-down vote. The wheeling and dealing is going on now, with President Bush hinting he would sacrifice the Alaska drilling provision, if need be, to get a bill that won't be stopped by a Senate filibuster.

That's a bad bargain unless the fundamental nature of the legislation is also changed.

Energy is obviously a growing problem in this country, as well as much of the world. Securing oil supplies is now the subtext if not an overwhelming factor shaping global politics. But the answer to achieving energy independence is not to plunder the Rocky Mountains, the seacoasts and other protected places in search of short-term supplies. What's called for is a bold effort to begin weaning ourselves from the scarce and polluting fossil fuels that are going to run out sooner or later in any case.

Sadly, there aren't many deep-pocketed lobbyists buying votes for that.

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