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Energy Amnesia

By Marjorie Williams
Wednesday, May 2, 2001; Page A21

"To speak exclusively of conservation," Dick Cheney said on Monday, "is to duck the tough issues" involved in addressing America's burgeoning energy crisis. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis -- all by itself -- for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

In previewing his energy task force's recommendations, due in a report later this month, Cheney made clear that for "years down the road" the administration's emphasis will instead be on developing new energy sources -- a strategy that will include opening protected lands to oil and gas exploration, curtailing environmental rules that limit the burning of coal and the building of new refineries and pipelines, and possibly building nuclear plants for the first time in more than 20 years.

Before we surrender to this industrialist's utopia, let's take a closer look at Cheney's words on conservation: We can't rely on conservation exclusively? All by itself? These words are sleight-of-hand, clever distractions from the truth that no one, least of all the Bush administration, is talking about conservation at all.

Thirty years ago, America began to face the troubling reality that we consume vastly more energy than we can hope to develop by environmentally responsible means. The duty to conserve became a given, part of a political landscape that acknowledged limits and openly debated means and ends. The end of Bush's first 100 days seems like a good time to stop and mark the extraordinary fact that this crucial piece of common sense has simply vanished from our vision, a cultural artifact as anachronistic as the Edsel.

The Bush administration bears an important measure of the blame: Managed by a vice president who stepped down from the helm of the oil-services firm Halliburton Co., a president who began his career in the oil business and a chief of staff who used to lobby for the auto industry, this administration has shown itself to be reflexively sympathetic to the needs of those industries. As obvious a point as this may be, it bears repeating that conservation is, among other things, antithetical to the profits of those benefactors.

But the Bush administration is as much an expression as a creator of our collective amnesia. You don't see many Democrats, outside the environmental lobby, rushing to take up such causes as higher fuel efficiency standards for cars. Despite having promised, in his first campaign, to raise corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards from the current 27.5 miles per gallon to 40 mpg by 2000 and 45 mpg by 2015, President Clinton passed up any chance to advance this goal while he presided over a Democratic Congress. Vice President Al Gore, who labored under eternal suspicion in the crucial state of Michigan for his writings on the environment, responded to last year's gas price hikes in the Midwest with consumer-pitying rhetoric that touched on everything but the suggestion that Americans might drive less or consider smaller, more efficient cars.

Meanwhile, as a wonderful article by Paul Roberts in last month's Harper's reminds us, the purest sign of our flight from reality is our love affair with behemoth sport utility vehicles, which conform to the light-truck CAFE standard of 20.7 mpg. It has been estimated that a 15 percent improvement in the fuel economy of SUVs and light trucks -- less than 3 mpg -- would save more oil every year than could be produced by drilling, as Bush proposes, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Yet when Congress voted in 1999 to kill the Transportation Department's authority to raise the fuel-efficiency standards for light trucks, Clinton signed the bill into law, despite having enough Senate votes to sustain a veto. Today, largely because of our passion for monster SUVs (a Honda now in development will advertise itself as "an apartment on wheels"), overall consumer-vehicle fuel efficiency is one of the very few environmental indexes that have gotten worse during the past 15 years.

Yet there is no part of the political spectrum that seems willing to suggest that even the smallest personal sacrifices might be in order. The Democratic Party -- which thinks it a victory to counter a $1.6 trillion Republican tax cut with a cut of merely $1.2 trillion (that'll show 'em!) -- has thrown up its hands and sworn off any acts of leadership that might return it to the days of being the take-your-medicine party of Walter Mondale. Who wants to be Jimmy Carter, smiling in his cardigans and reminding us all to turn our thermostats down to 65?

In the coming months, Democrats will make piecemeal attacks on portions of the "muscular" energy policy the Bush administration has promised us. But you probably won't see anyone of political prominence question the construction that Americans are entitled, as a birthright, to as much cheap energy as we can find a use for.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company