Fiddling and burning

July 07, 2005

FIRST, THE GOOD news. Definite progress has been made during the four years President Bush has been trying to win enactment of a national energy policy.

He and the Republican-led Congress have discovered the virtues of conservation and cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels. Mr. Bush even went so far as to finally acknowledge in Europe yesterday that global warming is under way and that "an increase in greenhouse gases caused by humans is contributing to the problem."

Meanwhile, environmentalists are taking a new look at nuclear power as among the most promising of clean fuel alternatives.

But - here's the disappointment - they're all still fiddling while $60-a-barrel oil burns. Both versions of the energy bill approved by the House and Senate are based largely on the absurd premise that the United States can reduce its reliance on foreign oil and gas by more vigorously extracting what remains under its own soil.

Despite their rhetoric, neither Mr. Bush nor the lawmakers seem to recognize the need for truly bold action to develop alternatives, or the foolishness of putting it off until the nation is running on empty.

In many respects, the 2005 legislation is just the same old goody bag of industry subsidies that has been kicking around Capitol Hill since not long after Vice President Dick Cheney and his oil industry pals wrote it in the early days of this administration.

Another year or two of enlightenment may be required before a congressional bill can live up to House Speaker Dennis Hastert's promise of a "more efficient, reliable and affordable energy policy." History suggests this year's two ugly ducklings won't turn into a swan when House and Senate negotiators meet this month to combine them.

Most disappointing was the Senate's refusal by a 67-28 margin to raise outdated fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. The market is already beginning to respond on its own to the demand for economical options to gas-guzzlers. But reducing fuel use is too important to be left to chance.

Also dismaying was the Senate's rejection of a mandatory cap-and-trade emissions reduction program to curb greenhouse gases. Under heavy pressure from the White House, senators opted instead for a non-binding resolution expressing support for such a program, which the glass-half-full crowd declared an improvement over a 1997 vote opposing mandatory curbs.

Another provision of the Senate measure, authorizing an inventory of oil and gas reserves in currently protected coastal waters, represents a huge step backward.

Even so, the Senate bill is more progressive than the House version, which still mostly ignores conservation and renewable energy sources to focus on increasing domestic fossil fuel production, partly by knocking down barriers that keep oil and gas drillers out of public range and forest lands in the West.

Despite the need for an ambitious new approach some lawmakers in both parties have dubbed a "Manhattan Project for energy," a majority of their colleagues still haven't caught on.

These slow learners need more time to get it right.

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