They Must Be Joking About Energy
Published on Saturday, May 5, 2001 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
They Must Be Joking About Energy
The first-blush reaction to the Bush administration's astonishing long-term strategy for achieving national energy independence is that they must be joking.

Vice President Dick Cheney should toss out this deeply flawed proposal and offer a credible strategy for providing the nation the energy it needs.

This one's a non-starter.

The United States cannot achieve energy independence by continuing to make reliance on fossil fuels the centerpiece of its energy strategy.

Unfortunately, it appears that it's asking too much of members of an administration deeply mired in a 19th century fossil fuel economy to cope with 21st century energy demands. So Congress must step into the breach to provide what the administration apparently cannot deliver: a smart, multi-pronged approach to energy independence.

It should place strong emphasis on development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar; on energy efficiency of appliances and machinery; on conservation and also on stringent pollution controls on fossil fuel sources.

Cheney is correct when he says new energy sources must be brought on line to keep pace with population growth. The aim should be to do that with the most environmentally friendly technology available. If it's not available, the federal government should make it its urgent business to see to it that it becomes available.

For his part, Cheney touts as an example of energy salvation the construction of 38,000 new miles of natural-gas pipelines -- enough to cover the distance between Maine and California 12 times. That pipe dream will not be politically achievable until the pipeline industry submits to far stricter safety standards than now exist.

Cheney also is correct when he says this nation's reliance on non-renewable oil, gas and coal will of necessity continue for some time over the near term. But what's fundamentally wrong with his strategy is that it deliberately conspires to prolong that dependency -- by such silly proposals as drilling in national wildlife refuges and monuments -- far beyond what otherwise would be necessary if meaningful federal investments are made now to gradually bring renewable energy sources on line.

And Cheney's dismissive tone regarding the economic value of conservation (aside from asking California federal employees to eschew e-mail, work without air conditioning and use the stairs) smacks more of petulant philosophical posturing than clearheaded thinking about energy efficiency.

For example, raising the average fuel use by cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon would result in oil savings of 1.5 million barrels a day by 2010, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. In contrast, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would produce 580,000 barrels a day by then, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Cheney also champions increased reliance on nuclear energy with the ironic argument that it's environmentally benign. But how environmentally attractive and cost-effective is an energy source whose deadly byproduct must be isolated from humans for 10,000 years?

The American public should not be surprised that Cheney, former head of an oil-services company, has declared that the Bush administration's idea of a national energy policy is to increase the supply of fossil fuels and dependence on nuclear energy while all but ignoring the dollar value inherent in conservation, renewables and energy efficiency.

All that logically can be concluded from this profound folly is that the administration believes the wrong people stand to profit if the nation moves to increased reliance on renewable energy and more efficient use of energy.

Nonetheless, it's disappointing that those entrusted with safeguarding the nation's best economic and environmental interests show themselves incapable of rising to the task.

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