For most Americans, the energy crisis has meant colder homes, curtailed driving and higher prices. But for the special-interest groups that lobby Congress, it has become a valuable tool for prying profitable concessions out of the government. If they can figure out some way, however farfetched, to link their pet project to energy savings, it is assured of knee-jerk support on Capitol Hill.
"There's an awful lot of money floating around on the Hill for energy programs," one congressman told my associate Peter Grant. "And there are a lot of people who want to spend it."
Here are just a few examples:
The trucking industry is one of the unlikeliest champiosn of energy conservation, conveniently choosing to overlook sweetheart regulations that stifle competition and waste an estimated 500 million gallons of fuel a year. With the arrogance of a 10-ton road hog, the industry is now promoting its long campaign to increase the gross weight of its interstate trucks to 80,000 pounds as an energy-conservation measure.
Industry spokesmen used the fuel-economy argument to overcome evidence that increased weight will cause more traffic accidents. The Senate passed the 40-ton limit despite a recent General Accounting Office report that also showed highway damage increasing with truck weight. "The energy required to repair the roads will probably be more than what's saved by heavier trucks," one congressional source said.
Maritime lobbyists successfully pleaded for a subsidy -- amounting to $2.5 million -- for shipowners who rebuild their engines for greater fuel economy. Though more efficient engines would undoubtedly save fuel, the shipowners most likely to take advantage of the subsidy would be those with antiquated engines that need to be rebuilt anyway.
Industries whose profits are threatened by environmental legislation have used President Carter's call for an Energy Mobilization Board -- which could grant exemptions in the cause of saving energy -- as a means to go after laws that restrict their operations. The American Petroleum Institute quickly circulated a memo listing all the laws it would like the board to have authority over. "It included practically every environmental law passed in the last 10 years," one source told my reporter Alan Alper. The Chamber of Commerce circulated a legislative hit list that went even further. Included were such laws as the National Historical Registration Act, which the chamber feels is a "partial or absolute obstacle to energy development."
The windfall profits tax legislation earmarked 60 percent of the revenue for tax breaks for those who save energy. But many industries are claiming a share for initiatives that would be made without any inducement. For example, Senate-House conferees included billions of dollars in tax credits for development of hydropower and coke-gas equipment, against the recommendation of the House Ways and Means Committee staff. In an internal memo, the staff pointed out that no incentives were needed. Hydropower is "a very cost-effecient and technologically easy means of increasing energy supplies," while a tax break for coke equipment is "probably a windfall for the steel industry [which has] to replace coke ovens in any case."
The conferees also okayed a questionable tax break of $36 million for Greyhound and Trailways to increase the number of their buses. The Ways and Means Committee staff called this a "pure windfall," pointing out that "tax credits for buses have very little link to reduced car travel." But the White House supported the giveaway.
The Helicopter Association of America has been trying for years to raid the aviation trust fund for financing of heliports. The group buttressed its claim by conducting a test that showed a helicopter used less fuel than a business jet in a trip from Knoxville to Atlanta. How much fuel would taxpayer-funded heliports save on such a run? One hundred and ten gallons.