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Congress Takes Wrong Turn Down the Road to Ruin
Published on Wednesday, April 27, 2005 by the Seattle Times
Congress Takes Wrong Turn Down the Road to Ruin
by Floyd J. McKay

Gas on my street sells for $2.58, and you can expect $3 a gallon this summer.

Tough on drivers. But when the going gets tough, the tough are supposed to get going. Right?

Wrong, if you look at our congressional leadership. Once again, Congress is taking the wrong fork in the road to the future. The tough have backed off, and instead rewarded their friends.

Increases in gas prices remind us that we have two roads to choose between. One road — the energy industry's road — leads to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and probably in the not-distant future to drilling offshore.

Congress is taking that road, and the House added insult to injury by boosting the tax breaks the oil industry already gets, to encourage more exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. Even President Bush, stalwart friend of Big Oil, gagged at that one.

The road not taken by Congress is to use concern over gas prices to do some conservation work to ease our dependence upon non-renewable resources. The Republican House defeated a Democratic proposal to adopt stronger emissions controls in new cars, and it favors Hummers over hybrids when it comes to tax incentives.

California and Washington legislatures, by contrast, are showing some leadership in the void created by our national politicians. These "solid blue" states have adopted or are adopting tougher emission standards to clean up the air as well as reduce fuel consumption.

Eight other states have adopted the so-called "California standard." Canada recently enacted a voluntary emissions-control measure, which may be a halfway house toward mandatory "California controls."

The Maryland Legislature is considering requiring automakers to send more hybrid cars into the state, where demand far exceeds supply. In our supposed free-market economy, it is amazing that an industry still doesn't "get it" that consumers want more of a product.

Fuel efficiency is good business. Just ask Boeing, which uses fuel efficiency as a big selling point for its Dreamliner 787, which will use 20 percent less fuel than its competitors, the company asserts.

In the long run, the declining supply of fossil fuel is a greater threat to American life as we have known it in the past century than is global terrorism.

If oil production peaks and begins a long downward slide, that will have a profound effect on our domestic and industrial life. Our economy is based on cheap oil, our communities are built around automobiles and we lack the backup transportation and industrial fuels needed to maintain our lifestyle.

America is the only industrialized nation without a functioning passenger-rail system, and we are cutting back intercity bus routes. We have systematically ignored alternative forms of energy, such as solar and wind, relegating research in these areas to the fringes while we build ever-bigger automobiles with ever-larger fuel demands.

If we were alone on the globe, we might get by with some help from our friends. But we are not alone, and not all the oil nations are our friends.

China and India are the current economic growth areas, and the implications of their growth have not been absorbed by most Americans — or our Congress. When you start replacing bicycles and pedicabs with private automobiles, consider the impact of millions of additional cars in these nations.

It is already happening. When I was in China 20 years ago, traffic jams were bicycles, pedicabs and carts pulled by porters. Today, Chinese cities have American-style traffic jams, as the new Chinese middle class goes for what the American middle class takes for granted. Some 27 million private cars are registered in China.

China is now the second-largest consumer of oil, its share growing dramatically every year. A decade ago, China exported oil — now it imports 40 percent.

The Chinese government has imposed fuel-economy standards for cars, SUVs and vans, stronger than the national standards of the United States. The rules have sparked interest in hybrid cars, and Toyota is beginning to build them in China.

Regardless of these laws, China's emergence as an industrial power threatens all non-renewable resources. The Economist, in a recent analysis asked, "Does the world have enough resources for China to keep growing at its present rate?"

Probably not, if you add the impact of a rapidly advancing India, and globalization in general.

While Congress sleeps — and hands out more benefits to Big Oil — the beat goes on around the world, and the day of reckoning draws nearer.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages.

© 2005 Seattle Times


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