Cheney's Choose-Your-Own Energy Plan

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Dick Cheney: "I think the price is going to come down this summer on gasoline."

Host Bob Schieffer: "You do?

Cheney: "I do."

— From the Sunday, May 20 program, "Face the Nation"

Pressed, Cheney gave the oldest reason in the book: supply and demand. Crude oil inventories are piling up, the pre-Memorial Day maintenance season at U.S. refineries is coming to a close, and barring widespread breakdowns, the much-feared $3 gallon of gas may not materialize this summer after all (Prices in fact are currently leveling off).

Interestingly Cheney, vice-president/energy czar in this supply-minded Bush Administration, declined to say what might be a fair price for a gallon of gas. "It's a market out there like anything else… I can't say that it ought to be $2 or a $1.50 or $2.50. I think the point is there is a marketplace out there that will in fact determine what the price is."

Which shows exactly why all the Sturm und Drang over the White House's supply-side prescription for meeting the U.S.' next-few-decades energy needs is a bit misplaced: Dick Cheney isn't throwing money at Big Energy, he's just throwing open the gates. The folks that will design the U.S. power picture over the next decade or two will be the energy companies themselves — and that means it'll all come down to we, the consumer.

"There are no new financial subsidies of any kind for the oil and gas industry," Cheney, in full-on "read the damn report" mode, told CBS. Yes, Dick Cheney's plan called for the construction of 1,300 power plants in the next 20 years — about one a week is the catchy statistic — but it also envisions 90 percent of those plants will be natural-gas-fired, the cleanest mainstream power source around. Yes, the Administration is more coal-fired-up than even the mildest environmentalist, but the only money the White House wants to actually spend on coal is $2 billion to make it burn cleaner. And yes, Dick Cheney isn't afraid of nukes. But Republican pollsters are telling Bush the public isn't either.

Cheney isn't instituting a command economy, and he's not going to build those power plants himself, with taxpayer dollars. (Though the fresh air and exercise probably wouldn't hurt him.) The White House's plan makes it easier, cutting red tape on pipeline construction and reversing the regulatory polarity from "environmental impact" to "energy impact," but in the end, Big Energy's going to build them — if the money's there. Over the next 4-6 years or so, the energy industry will take a look at energy prices — the only real engine for increased production in any capitalist economy — and slowly start placing its bets.

In the meantime, Big Energy and the environmentalists — and the American consumers who don't want power plants in their backyards but hate high energy prices even more — are all on the same side, or should be. What are the Bush buddies at Enron lobbying hardest for? Deregulation. What's the best way to let the market start supplying the cleaner energy consumers supposedly want? Deregulation. And what's the best way for the American public — who, according to a CNN poll, now disapprove of Bush's handling of energy 51 percent to 41 percent — to keep those 1,300 power plants from sprouting in 1,300 backyards? Reduce demand, reduce prices, remove the incentive.

The biggest "subsidy" Cheney and company are proposing (besides the tossed-in tax breaks for conservation) is for transmission — a national electrical grid, for better distributing the power that gets made. It'll be a tooth-and-nail fight with the kind of property-rights stalwarts that are a traditional Republican constituency, but it ought to get done, if only because a power line doesn't care what kind of power — coal, solar, wind, nuclear — it transmits.

I have a dream for American power, too. They say that there's enough wind in the Dakotas alone to power the whole country — that we could be the Saudi Arabia of wind — and I know there's enough sun in Arizona to chip in a little more, when solar-power technology is ready for the job.

BP Amoco, the second-largest oil company in the U.S., is the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels. Wind farms are starting to sprout up — there's even one in Texas. Despite all of Bush and Cheney's much-criticized permissiveness when it comes to toxic power like coal and nukes, the long-term future they've laid out is cleaner than the one we've got: goosing, through reduced regulation, the natural-gas slice of the energy pie — it's now 15 percent — and letting the market for energy do the rest.

Bush and Cheney won't even consider price caps in California; they'd prefer not to repeal the 18-percent gas tax because it probably wouldn't work (meaning, the 18 percent would go back into Big Oil's pockets). And most importantly, they'll never lift a finger to stop deregulation, which when it's done right has the benefit of producing the amount — and the kind — of power that people actually want.

In other words, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush haven't really done much of anything to solve America's energy woes, however bad they may actually be — they're just going to see to it that the people who make power in America right now can make as much of it as America demands.