The House is moving quickly and with sad predictability toward approval of yet another energy bill heavily weighted in favor of the oil, gas and coal industries. In due course the Senate may give the country something better. But unless Mr. Bush rapidly elevates the discussion, any bill that emerges from Congress is almost certain to fall short of the creative strategies needed to confront the two great energy-related issues of the age: the country's increasing dependency on imported oil, and global warming, which is caused chiefly by the very fuels the bill so generously subsidizes.
What's maddening about this is that there is no shortage of ideas about what to do. Step outside the White House and Congress, and one hears a chorus of voices begging for something far more robust and forward-looking than the trivialities of this energy bill. It is a strikingly bipartisan chorus, too, embracing environmentalists, foreign policy hawks and other unlikely allies. Last month, for instance, a group of military and intelligence experts who cut their teeth on the cold war - among them Robert McFarlane, James Woolsey and Frank Gaffney Jr. - implored Mr. Bush as a matter of national security to undertake a crash program to reduce the consumption of oil in the United States.
The consensus on the need for a more stable energy future is matched by an emerging consensus on how to get there. In the last two years, there have been three major reports remarkable for their clarity and convergence, from the Energy Future Coalition, a group of officials from the Clinton and the first Bush administrations; the Rocky Mountain Institute, which concerns itself with energy efficiency; and, most recently, the National Commission on Energy Policy, a group of heavyweights from academia, business and labor.
Homage is paid to stronger fuel economy standards, which Congress has steadfastly resisted. But all three reports also call for major tax subsidies and loan guarantees to help Detroit develop a new generation of vehicles, as well as an aggressive bio-fuels program to develop substitutes for gasoline.
The main virtue of moving to more efficient vehicles is that they would reduce oil imports (transportation accounts for two-thirds of the oil that Americans consume). But they would also reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. Here is another issue where the rest of the world seems to be rushing past Mr. Bush. In January, Europe imposed emission quotas on thousands of power plants and other industrial sites in an effort to meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement repudiated by Mr. Bush in 2001. And last week, Canada unveiled its own strategy for meeting its commitments by cutting emissions from power plants and automobiles.
Closer to home, this page has already noted the growing number of global warming initiatives at the state level. They include California's aggressive plan to limit carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles, and efforts by Gov. George Pataki of New York to organize a consortium of Northeastern states to begin reducing power-plant emissions.
Even the coal-fired utilities, the companies Mr. Bush sought to protect by rejecting the emissions targets specified in the Kyoto Protocol, are getting religion. The most recent convert is Cinergy, a powerful Midwestern utility that now seems willing to accept mandatory caps on emissions and to put money into advanced "clean coal" technologies.
Yet no company, and no state, can go it alone. Changing the way this country produces and uses energy will require a determined national effort organized by the president, but Mr. Bush, so far, has been content to remain at the rear of a parade he ought to be leading. It will also require a far more adventurous approach from a Congress whose solicitude for special interests has greatly exceeded its concern for the national interest.
© 2005 New York Times, Co.