The GOP Energy Policy Is Here...

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A polar bear and her cubs relax in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge

On the eve of a budget address to Congress (and the nation) meant to focus on three things — tax cuts, education, and fiscal discipline — one of George W. Bush's eager allies in the Senate has tossed in an energy policy.

Alaska senator Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has a 300-page plan, at a cost that the Congressional Budget Office is still calculating, to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil from 56 percent to 50 percent and set Americans free of pesky high energy prices forever. How? More oil — more drilling, more exploration. More natural gas, too, more windmills and more solar panels. And did we mention more oil?

ANWR: This is the centerpeice, and at least Murkowski's no NIMBY-pamby — the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge is as close to his backyard as anyone's, and he, like Bush, is convinced that its black bounty, anywhere from 3.2 billion to 16 billion barrels of extractable oil, is well worth what advocates say will be minimal environmental damage. Says Murkowski: "The reality of ANWR is that if you are looking to increase supply, you look at where you are mostly likely to find it."

Opponents, from Jimmy Carter (who first set aside the refuge) to just about every Democrat and environmentalist in town, say the five-year time pre-production lag makes this a bad response to a current energy pinch, and a short-term sellout of one of the last unspoiled places in the country. Massachusetts senator John Kerry has threatened to filibuster any bill that would permit drilling in the refuge.

Tax credits and subsidies: The trick to beating supply pinches, Murkowski figures, is keeping the wells pumping in times of plenty. Oil companies that deal with small-scale wells would be awarded tax credits when prices fall, as a way to provide an incentive to keep such wells operating. The bill would also reduce the federal royalties big energy companies pay when the prices of oil and natural gas fall below a certain level.

Opponents, of course, say this is a Bush-donor giveaway, and some additional tax credits for alternative energy sources — from solar and wind down to coal and nuclear — won't insulate him from that criticism. In fact, critics may have some reluctant support from Bush himself as he tries to sell a for-the-people tax-cut plan without loading it down with "goodies." Some taxpayer groups estimate the bill would cost at least $21 billion in subsidies and tax breaks to energy companies.

California: The current crisis in the Golden State is a handy selling point for the parade of Republicans who started primping the bill on Monday. But California's problems have more to do with natural gas prices — and a rickety transmission system — than any oil shortage.

Saddam et al.: Murkowski himself prefers to talk about "unstable nations" like Iran and Iraq, and the possibility of the U.S. being held hostage by Middle East malcontents. (The United States imports 750,000 barrels of oil a day from Iraq, a country which it frequently bombs.)

And this is the point when the energy debate starts to sound a little like the one over the drug war. When it comes to the U.S.' energy addiction, it's one thing to reduce one's dependence on foreign dealers — nothing bad about that. But instead of drilling the Arctic, and the bayou, and doling out tax credits to keep derricks moving, Democrats are making the case that the only long-term solutions start with reducing demand.

"We can't even talk about a comprehensive energy policy without concrete policies to reduce oil demand," said Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on Murkowski's committee. "We cannot produce our way to independence from foreign oil supplies."

Bush, of course, ran for office on just that principle. And while the Alaska refuge appears on the electoral radar more prominently than most environmental issues, Republicans know well the political reality that voters will do almost anything to avoid paying more for gas — except drive smaller cars.

But with Democrats eager to go the mat for a feel-good issue, Bush might want to put off this debate until he gets his tax cut through.