Pork to the 435th power

November 19, 2003

CHINESE LEADERS are worried about their nation's growing dependence on imported oil. What's more, pollution from such fossil fuels threatens to become a parallel concern as China's booming economy matures.

So they've hit upon an obvious energy strategy that has somehow eluded U.S. lawmakers: conservation.

In what should be an embarrassing juxtaposition for leaders here, China is moving to impose tighter fuel-efficiency rules on cars and SUVs than the U.S. requires, while Congress is adopting an opposite approach - boosting domestic production of fossil fuels to meet all-but-unchecked demand.

And yet, with payoffs of $23 billion in tax subsidies to most lawmakers' pet portions of the energy industry, there aren't nearly enough willing to stand up to this folly.

The impressive display of power fueling the long-stalled energy bill suddenly roaring through Congress is coming from pork - and the co-opting principle that everybody gets a slice.

As expected, the deal-breaker provisions on opening Alaska's wildlife refuge and coastal areas along the lower 48 to oil and gas drilling have been dropped from the final version of the bill approved by the House yesterday. But what's left is nearly as bad.

It eases environmental restrictions to promote drilling and mining on public lands, provides tax help to already profitable producers of oil, gas, coal and nuclear power, requires no progress on tightening emissions from vehicles or smokestacks, and adds insult to injury by subsidizing the purchase of monster gas-guzzlers, such as the Humvee.

Alternative energy sources were not ignored. Handouts also went to promote development of hydrogen, wind, solar and biomass sources. But one of the biggest snouts at the trough belongs to ethanol producers, who make a cleaner-burning gasoline additive but require more energy to do it.

The Midwest corn growers pack such a political wallop they can probably deliver enough votes in the Senate - including that of Democratic leader Tom Daschle - to prevent a filibuster.

Much of the impetus driving the measure after years of impasse was prompted by last summer's power failure in the Northeast. But the bill addresses the problem only halfway, setting mandatory reliability standards but allowing large Southeast utilities to stall the regional cooperation required to prevent future blackouts.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican who helped write the legislation and took home a major share of the booty, dismisses all complaints by labeling it a "jobs bill." He predicted it would put between 800,000 and a million people to work.

How long are we going to keep falling for that old line?

We are selling out the environment, our pocketbooks, our health, our safety and our security on the flimsy prospect of gains that would inevitably be short-term.

The Senate still has a chance to stop this monstrosity. It should take a cue from China and prepare for the future, instead of squandering precious resources trying to maintain an unsustainable past.

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