Old thinking on energy

August 04, 2006

Three-bucks-a-gallon gasoline has transformed the energy debate in Washington from what Marylanders might see as a principled if abstract battle over drilling in Alaska's wildlife refuge to the most serious threat in 25 years of oil rigs rising off Ocean City.

Short-term politics of a tumultuous election year have driven Congress to contemplate lifting a ban on coastal oil and gas exploration that's been in place for a quarter-century and until this year had been considered sacrosanct.

Differences between a sweeping House measure and a more narrow Senate proposal mostly focused on the Gulf of Mexico may be impossible to resolve before Congress adjourns in the fall. What's really needed, though, is a completely different approach.

The worst feature of this legislation is that it's so backward, so ostrich-head-in-the-sand, so 1950s. The nation's energy future doesn't lie with plundering seacoasts and other precious natural resources for ever-more-meager supplies of polluting fossil fuels.

The 21st century will be marked by an international race for new fuels and new technologies that will be clean and green, say serious thinkers on the topic, including Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, who called the drilling legislation a deceptive diversion.

Mr. Bartlett and a growing chorus across the political spectrum are calling for the kind of focused effort that produced the atomic bomb in World War II and put a man on the moon in the 1960s. And yet the Republican-led Congress would not allow a floor vote in the House or Senate on proposals to require higher vehicle fuel-efficiency standards - a step estimated to save more oil than coastal drilling produces in decades.

Timidity in the advance of elections is bipartisan, though. Many Democrats in the Senate supported the drilling legislation because it would send billions in federal leasing revenue back to Gulf states, theoretically advancing the cause of Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu's re-election in 2008.

The great fraud of coastal drilling legislation is that it won't even lower gasoline prices, as supporters claim. Prices are set by a global market far more affected by military conflicts.

Congress is doing no favors for its constituents by encouraging them to ignore the fast-approaching end of the fossil-fuel era.

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