Is Bush's Policy Too Oil-Slick?

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Nailed to the doors of the White House this morning reporters found Vice President Cheney's 95 theses, actually 105 recommendations, for modernizing the nation's energy infrastructure, boosting fuel supplies, and throwing political bones to anyone whose environmental politics veer to the left of the President's — which is to say, anyone who has any.

The report's most controversial recommendations have been widely known and discussed for months: drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and elsewhere; increase reliance on nuclear power; tie research money for renewable energy, such as wind and solar, to revenues from aforementioned drilling. The ANWR debate is expected to crumble under the weight of congressional environmentalists; the waste-related risks of nuclear power plants — compared with the global warming threat — may look like the lesser of two evils. Renewable energy, which now composes an eye-popping 2% of the nation's energy grid, needs a heck of a lot more than federal research dollars if it is ever to become a national alternative to fossil fuel energy.

The plan's real identity resides behind the prose and in the details too small for political prognosticators to sniff out before the document's release. For example, the overview, released last night, immediately conjures the proverbial elephant in the room. Take this: "Many families face energy bills two to three times higher than they were a year ago... some employers must lay off workers or curtail production to absorb the rising cost of energy. Drivers across America are paying higher and higher gasoline prices."

No one would expect the President's commission to remind everyone that energy companies are having a great run, but it immediately subtracts at least some credibility from the rhetoric to highlight people's troubles without saying that a lot of other people are happy to see them troubled. Of course, it's not news that political documents shed credibility as quickly as possible, Republican, Democrat, Green or Whig, but some balance would be nice sometimes. Dynergy and Duke Energy, which operate plants in California, saw first-quarter 2000 profits jump 40% and 63% respectively. Exxon Mobil's net income more than doubled last year to $17.7 billion. These are not hard times for everyone.

Though the industries that will implement the energy policy are never mentioned, the recommendations that are neither redundant nor fluff generally sound their factories' morning whistle (The only sector mentioned is the auto industry, which, the report states, should not be "negatively impacted" by any new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. A worthy sentiment, but "negatively impacted" itself looms as fuel for later debate.)

The NEPD group suggests that the president call on federal agencies to speed up the approval of permits to build power plants and the opening of land to development; evaluate and remove unnecessary impediments to oil and gas exploration "with full public consultation"; write up incentives for "environmentally sound offshore oil and gas development" (no doubt an oxymoron in greener parts of Washington); and the construction of pipelines and electricity transmission networks.

The vice president's committee endorses nominal environmental policies. But any such policies are mitigated by the report's first recommendation, that federal regulators take into account the "energy impact" of any new action and avoid any "adverse energy effects." These caveats, in such a privileged spot in the report, essentially encourage regulators to take energy concerns into account when attempting to save the environment from our nation's prodigious energy consumption. That said, the group does encourage the president to pursue three-pollutant legislation, to limit the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury output of electricity generators.

Formerly known as four-pollutant legislation, the policy changed its name after Bush changed his mind on the need to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Chapter Four addresses energy efficiency, and suggests that the EPA expand its successful Energy Star conservation program to include homes and public buildings such as schools or hospitals.

The title of most unfortunately-worded recommendation must go to the discussion of nuclear waste. After calling for the rebirth of nuclear power plant construction, the group must decide what to do with all that dangerous waste, namely, the separated plutonium that emerges from the generation of nuclear energy. Study the matter, they say, and develop ways to reduce waste: "In doing so, the United States will continue to discourage the accumulation of separated plutonium, worldwide." Would hate to see the Bush administration charged as "soft on plutonium."

For those who still remember the election, when Democrats and Republicans temporarily swapped positions on states' rights, the policy group advises the president to empower the federal government to seize land for the construction of electricity transmission lines. Governors and state representatives are already furious. The rest of us can just think of it as a small reminder of the eagerness with which the two parties are willing to overstep the usual bounds of the federalist debate when it's convenient.

The adverse economic effects of an energy shortage should not be discounted; indeed, Republican pollsters are finding that the best way for the president to mollify public concern over the plan's environmental unfriendliness is to sell it as a matter of economic security — in the land of the consumer, lower prices are still king. But those pollsters are also hearing that many voters suspect that this energy "shortage" and its attendant price hikes have been drummed up by a profiteering Big Oil.

Perhaps the most perspicacious commentary on the new policy belongs to The Onion, the popular satirical newspaper, which last week ran the headline, "After Careful Consideration, Bush Recommends Oil Drilling." Unless the president and his team can duck Democratic accusations that they are industry puppets, it will be difficult for we energy gluttons to feel that this White House has our best interests at heart.