Whatever Happened to a Balanced Energy Policy?

Deja Vu

08-01-1991 // Mary Hager

More than a year before Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait, sending the world's oil markets skyward, George Bush promised the nation an energy strategy. It would, he pledged, achieve balance "among our increasing need for energy at reasonable prices, our commitment to a safer, healthier environment, our determination to maintain an economy second to none, and our goal to reduce dependence by ourselves and our friends and allies on potentially unreliable energy suppliers."

But something was missing from the energy plan that emerged from the White House last February. Despite the promised balance, it pushed for more oil development and a revitalized nuclear industry—without strong energy conservation measures. Notably absent, for example, was any mention of higher fuel-efficiency standards for the nation's gas guzzlers. The energy industry has been delighted, the environmental community disillusioned ("George Bush wants a gas guzzler and a nuke in every garage," snapped Sierra Club lobbyist Daniel Becker). And the groundwork has been laid for heated Congressional debate.

Historically, energy policies have been products of crisis, and this one is no exception. The oil embargo of 1973, for instance, prompted the Nixon-Ford Project for Independence, an early effort to conserve and reduce the dependence on foreign oil. Faced with his own oil shock, Jimmy Carter, who urged a "moral equivalent of war" to achieve energy independence, offered a visionary blend of conservation and an effort to develop new sources like solar power and "synfuels" from oil shale. But Carter's efforts eventually succumbed to the Reagan push in the other direction, a game plan which, according to then-budget director David Stockman, required "only two policies—strategic [oil] reserves and strategic [military] forces."

By the time George Bush was elected, the nation faced new sorts of energy crises. Even before the Kuwait invasion, some observers maintain, national security was threatened by our dependence on oil imports, then nearing (and since topping) the 50 percent mark. Environmental concerns about global warming, air pollution and acid rain—all linked to fossil fuels—were escalating. At the same time, Americans have been more profligate with energy than any other nation, using twice as much per capita as the Japanese or Swedes, for instance—and feeding a still-growing appetite.

In response to the new pressures, Bush set his Secretary of Energy, James Watkins, to work. For two years, department officials scoured the country for ideas, visiting 48 states, holding 18 public hearings, reviewing some 200,000 pages of material. The early word was encouraging to all sides. By all accounts, Watkins became convinced of the needs to reduce energy demand through conservation as well as to develop new energy sources.

The balance seemed to be there—that is, until presidential advisors led by Chief of Staff John Sununu stripped it of serious• conservation measures. The final version, says Dave Alberswerth, National Wildlife Federation Director of Public Lands and Energy, is a "continuation of the strength through exhaustion policy: Let's use up our fossil fuel resources as fast as possible."

Why the White House reaction? Certainly it demonstrates industry's political clout. "What we see is a rehash of the energy industry wish list, with a little conservation and renewable energy thrown in as window dressing," says Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But probably just as significant was concern over the President's ratings. Watkins made clear after the plan's release that the Administration is against "harsh command and control" measures that Congress might favor, such as energy taxes. But then, Watkins doubted that anyone on Capitol Hill would try to force such measures. Why not? "Because," he said last March—and his answer likely explains much about what happened to the plan in the White House—"people want to get elected again."

There's no doubt about that last part, but some Congressional leaders differ from Bush in how to go about it. Since February, they've introduced dozens of proposals to amend the plan, many of which aim to mine the energy reserves in efficiency. Now it's up to the lawmakers' constituents to say whether they're right.

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