Washington's Energy Failure

By Sherwood Boehlert
Monday, September 18, 2006

The problems BP has had recently with its Alaskan pipeline seem both an apt metaphor for the way the United States has (mis)handled its energy policy and a warning of what may await us if we stay on the wrong track.

For a long time now, politicians have handled U.S. energy policy the way BP apparently handled its pipeline: We've talked about it, we've taken some superficial actions, but we've failed to examine it closely, secure in our belief that everything seemed pretty much okay.

The result, in the case of energy policy, has been gasoline at $3 a gallon; a growing oil addiction (to use the president's well-chosen word) that threatens our national security; and an economy and populace more vulnerable than they need be to domestic and international fluctuations in oil production.

So far, the reaction in Washington has ranged from anemic to the counterproductive. The House passed a bill to streamline regulation of refinery construction, even though there is little evidence that regulation has constrained refinery capacity. The House repeatedly passed legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, with proponents arguing that pollution from drilling is a thing of the past -- presumably a harder argument to make in the wake of this summer's revelations from BP.

The House also passed a bill allowing the entire U.S. coastline to be opened to oil drilling. This bill, which received surprisingly little media attention, not only would allow the lifting of current drilling moratoriums but would also significantly revise the way offshore oil drilling is permitted, weakening the ability of states and citizens to control the use of their shores.

Congress has passed some positive legislation promoting energy research and development, but the actual funding has been rather meager, and much of it has been focused on the most futuristic energy technologies, such as hydrogen and fusion -- gambles that are worth investing in but that can hardly be the foundation of a realistic near-term energy policy.

What is conspicuously missing from the energy debate is any substantial discussion or action on energy efficiency or conservation. Conservative ideologues like to equate conservation with discomfort: sweltering in under-air-conditioned buildings or driving a subcompact car. But these images are absurdly outdated, if they were ever true. Conservation means developing and deploying technologies (including deploying many that already exist) to enable Americans to live the way they want to while using less energy.

This is something that isn't likely to be accomplished by the marketplace alone, despite ideological rhetoric. Every American might desire more energy-efficient goods but still buy, say, a less efficient sport-utility vehicle if that's all that's available. Moreover, energy conservation is imperative, given the national security and economic vulnerability of our current energy path. We need government action to respond to the classic market failures that thwart individual efforts to remedy our oil addiction.

The most important, realistic and feasible step the government could take would be to require automakers to make more fuel-efficient cars by raising corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. About 45 percent of the oil Americans consume is used by cars and light trucks. We simply can't get a handle on our energy use if we don't do something about mileage -- which has been stuck at the same average level for about 20 years, even as every other sector of the economy has become more energy-efficient.

Our unwillingness to address fuel economy -- the House hasn't even been willing to schedule a vote on the issue since gas prices began skyrocketing last fall -- is especially unforgivable because we already have technology that could significantly increase fuel economy without reducing safety or limiting consumer choice. Better still, consumers would save money on gasoline -- savings that would more than cover any costs for the technology. These are not my assertions; they are the conclusions of a 2002 report on fuel economy standards by the National Academy of Sciences.

The case for increasing mileage is so compelling that politicians are at least starting to give lip service to raising CAFE standards. The administration, for example, has proposed a bill that would allow the standards to be increased. But that proposal both fails to require any action and is written in a way that could actually end up reducing average mileage. (This is because it would allow mileage to be set by vehicle class, without setting standards for the overall vehicle fleet.)

Congress should take real action -- just as BP has had to do -- rather than continuing to avert its gaze until the next emergency. After a summer of high gas prices, the public ought to be fed up with Washington's kowtowing to the oil and auto industries instead of taking a hard look at effective measures.

The writer, a Republican representative from New York, is chairman of the House Committee on Science.

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