WASHINGTON - US industry analysts are questioning whether President George W. Bush's warnings of a national energy crisis are accurate and if they justify the administration's discarding of emissions standards and its bid to drill on protected lands.
"We've got an energy crisis in America that we have to deal with in a common-sense way," the president said recently, as Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham warned of the worst energy crunch since the 1970s oil crisis.
"We need to increase the supplies of energy so as to make sure that our consumers and small businesses and large businesses have got the energy necessary to not only heat their homes but to run their businesses."
Bush, a former oilman, has gone back on a campaign pledge to seek a reduction in air pollution emissions, and he has also advocated drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to ease the country's energy crunch, particularly in the face of the rising costs of imported crude.
But John Lichtblau, chairman of Petroleum Industry Research Foundation Inc., said the crisis language being used by the administration is misleading.
"There is no oil crisis -- the shortage is entirely in domestic fuels. This is entirely a domestic problem, and it is a regional problem."
"They are very inexact about calling this an energy crisis. They keep referring to the 1973 oil crisis, which was brought about as a function of oil being used as a political instrument. There is no such thing now," he said.
"If it were not for California electricity, the word 'energy crisis' would not be uttered by anyone."
Lichtblau added that, while oil prices are currently fairly high, they are not high enough to harm the US economy.
Some energy analysts charge that the administration's arguments to support their statements of crisis -- the rolling blackouts in the western state of California, for example -- may be more politically than economically motivated.
"It's a self-inflicted shortage," Jim Riccio, a senior policy analyst for the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, said of the California electricity crunch, which he blamed largely on badly planned deregulation efforts.
"I really believe this is a propaganda effort on the part of the administration to drill (in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and try to promote failed nuclear technology," said Riccio, who heads the group's mass energy and environmental program.
Other experts disagree.
"There is a shortage of the commodity. Customers are losing their power. This is a real shortage -- there's nothing artificial about it," said Larry Makovich, senior director for electrical power research at the independent Cambridge Energy Research Associates.
"There will be points in the summer where there is no power for any price" in northern California, he said, blaming California's strict environmental controls for the closure of generating capability and predicting that the controls would be relaxed.
"The administration is trying to 'add flexibility' to the environmental rules. That's a buzz word" for trying to widen the standards on clean air, he added. "You've got a trade-off here. The assessment is it would probably be wise to trade off a little air pollution for power supply," Makovich said.
In late January, Bush placed Vice President Richard Cheney in charge of the panel that would "promote dependable, affordable and environmentally sound" production and distribution of energy for the future.
Proposals under consideration include drilling for oil on federal lands, including Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and expanded burning of coal -- both of which environmental groups strongly oppose.
Unless domestic production increases, the United States will be importing 64 percent of the oil it consumes by 2020, the White House has said, adding that not one new refinery has been built in the country in over 25 years.
There are pending legislative proposals that would offer various tax incentives to boost domestic oil production as well as new pipeline construction. Hearings are expected through spring.
But some question whether boosting national capacity is the answer.
"We're definitely not meeting our domestic consumption needs. We are way too dependent on foreign sources of oil," acknowledged Tyson Slocum, a senior researcher at Public Citizen.
"But the amount of oil from the Arctic refuge is minuscule, ... (and) we consume so much it's only going to reduce our reliance on world oil by a small amount."
"Saying our problem is just an issue of supply is not the case," Slocum said. "We've got long-term issues that we need to deal with about energy consumption, but the crisis that George Bush and Spencer Abraham are talking about has nothing to do with reality."
Copyright © 2001 AFP