Energy Policy

The Bush presidency’s foreign policy has yet to take shape. Environmental and energy policy is solidifying, on the other hand, at too rapid a rate. The president reversed his campaign promise to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, and unilaterally withdrew from the Kyoto treaty on global warming. Our European allies were appalled. The former British environmental secretary John Gummer put it this way: Bush is signaling that Americans are not to be trusted as allies in negotiation. Never before has a change in administration meant that they would rat on commitments they had already made.

Mr. Bush has also moved to retain Clinton administration proposals to limit construction in wetlands, raise the standards for disclosure of lead emissions and require petroleum companies to remove most pollutants from diesel fuel. These decisions have produced howls of protest from developers and the fossil fuel lobby, two big Bush campaign contributors. But in a series of other decisions over the last three monthsabandoning new regulations for arsenic levels in drinking water, limiting citizen lawsuits to protect endangered species, rolling back standards for air conditioners, lifting rules that restricted chemical runoffs from mines and announcing an energy strategy to increase the supply of fossil fuels rather than reduce demandMr. Bush has set a direction that can hardly be called friendly to Earth.

The California energy crisis and this winter’s spike in heating oil and gasoline prices, moreover, have led Mr. Bush to propose exempting old coal-burning power plants from Clean Air Act rules and opening up public lands, including the Rocky Mountain Front and Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to intensive oil exploration. At the same time consumers have been encouraged to blame California’s short supply of power and the nation’s continued dependence on foreign oil on environmentalists and antipollution laws that supposedly limit electricity production. If there are any environmental regulations preventing California from having a 100 percent max output at their plants, as I understand there may be, said Mr. Bush two months ago, then we need to relax those regulations.

The President is fuzzing the facts. What has blocked California from building new power plants has not been the Sierra Club but competing power companies and neighbors shouting not in my backyard. Nor will drilling in Alaska stop California’s rolling blackouts, since the state generates so little of its electricity from oil. And Arctic oil is not going to bring cheap heating oil to the Northeast or lower gas prices in Chicago. Moreover, if we decided to drill in Alaska tomorrow, says the U.S. Geological Survey, oil from that region would not start flowing to the lower 48 states for another 10 years. Finally, expanding domestic oil production will not significantly reduce our dependence on foreign oil, for as the conservative Cato Institute points out, the real reason for that dependence is cost. To produce a barrel of domestic oil costs on average about $7.50, whereas Saudi Arabia can extract that barrel for only $1.50. As long as Persian Gulf states have lots of oil at that pricewhich they dothere is no way U.S. oil can compete, and for this reason gulf state producers will continue to dominate the world market.

The solution to our heavy dependence on foreign oil is ready at hand. What would make an immediate difference is a focus on energy efficiency and conservation. Every American uses twice as much energy as the average European. The disproportion has little to do with the size or productivity of American industry. In large part it is due to higher energy taxes in Europe and rank wastefulness in the United States. From the engineering of sport utility vehicles to the design of washing machines, Americans have spurned the very idea of saving energy. If Congress raised the standards of fuel economy for pickups, minivans and S.U.V.’s, we could easily save a million barrels of oil a daythree times as much oil as might come from the Arctic Refuge. And if we upped the average gas mileage for corporate fleets of cars and trucks by 60 percent, something that we have the technology to do, we would save more oil each year than we import from all of the Persian Gulf.

Imagining that every move to protect the environment will damage the economy and cost jobs is a viewpoint now espoused by only the most retrograde sectors of the union movement and corporate America. At the 1998 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the C.E.O.’s of the world’s 1,000 largest companies took a different tack. Acknowledging that climate change poses the most critical problem facing humanity today, they envisioned that the transition from fossil fuels to efficient and renewable energy sourcessolar, wind, biomass and geothermalwould trigger an unprecedented world economic boom. They were betting, in other words, that in the long run treading lightly upon the planet will make both moral and financial sense.

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