Archive for Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Short attention span on energy

May 22, 2001

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By now it should be clear that Americans are passionate about energy, willing to go to war for it, glad to do anything to conserve it or ensure its plentiful supply except when it's cheap.

If there is a flaw in the nation's energy policy or lack of it over the past 30 years, it has more to do with the attention span of people during those repeated cycles when electricity and gasoline seem to flow in a seamless, affordable stream. This is precisely the time when large numbers of them are likely to do something stupid like investing in $40,000 sport utility vehicles that become Jurassic relics when gas threatens to go to $3 a gallon.

Viewed as part of this monotonous cycle, President Bush's new energy plan portentously unveiled last week is just another tiresome piece of rubbish to be tolerated until the Alaskan tundra, various protected lands and offshore sanctuaries can be punched full of enough holes to make driving an SUV practical again. This is not Bush's fault. If an orangutan had been elected president last November, he would now be swinging from the trees with proposals to make the supply of energy plentiful, clean, affordable, secure, renewable, endless pick your virtue.

The Bush plan is not so much a plan as it is a Christmas tree, one of those perfectly symmetrical plastic ones, that pays extravagant lip service to conservation and air-quality concerns while leaning most heavily on the sort of drill-and-pump philosophy that comes natural to an oil man and fits like an old shoe when his vice president has a similar resume.

Bush declared that "America in the year 2001 faces the most serious energy shortage since the oil embargoes of the 1970s." But Bush warned that "our energy crisis has been years in the making and will take years to put fully behind us." These years presumably included the presidency of his own father, who suffered through an "energy crisis" in 1990 when the price of oil rose from $17 a barrel in June to $36 a barrel in October.

At the time, the elder Bush calmly declared in his annual economic report of 1991 that all was well, that we had merely to allow "market forces to guide products to their most valued uses while the decrease in the intensity of energy use has made the overall economy less sensitive to oil price shocks." He blandly concluded: "For these reasons, the U.S. economy is now able to adapt more readily to an oil price shock than it was in the past." The younger Bush's latest response to his own "energy crisis" would suggest the old man got hold of him and said, "For heaven's sake, don't make the same mistake I did. Forget about the vision thing. This energy thing will eat you alive."

If this is the advice Bush got from his father, his response seems appropriately urgent, not to say hysterical. But does it advance us much from 1973, when President Nixon grandly declared "by the end of this decade, we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy sources?" Nixon's words sound laughable make that asinine when you consider that today, 28 years later, 60 percent of the petroleum we use comes from abroad. They're hilarious when you think that 18 years later, George Bush launched the Persian Gulf War to protect energy supplies located half way around the world in a quaint kingdom where women aren't allowed to drive cars, can't even go to gin mills because there aren't any.

But on the list of silly energy policies, who can forget Ronald Reagan's? Unlike both Bushes, he enjoyed the purely cyclical luxury of falling world oil prices. First, he proposed abolishing the Department of Energy and, failing that, was able by 1985 to kill off and shut down the Synthetic Fuels Corp. This was a Jimmy Carter-sponsored public enterprise that held great promise in the areas of coal gasification and liquefaction. Reagan also had splendid success in reducing fuel economy standards and in cutting funds for energy research. He could be rightfully called the "father of the SUV," if not much else.

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