SOME THINGS in Washington never change: summer humidity, gridlocked roads -- and the energy debate on Capitol Hill. In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, both of which hit the Gulf Coast oil and gas industry hard, a "new" energy debate has begun in Congress. So far, it sounds a lot like the old energy debate. Politicians favoring an expansion and diversification of domestic production say the hurricanes are an argument for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, drilling offshore and loosening environmental regulations. Politicians favoring oil conservation and, particularly, automo- bile fuel-efficiency standards, say the hurricanes are making their case instead.
In principle, there's nothing wrong with holding this discussion again. As we wrote in July when the energy bill was about to pass, it would be well worth revisiting. It is also true that Congress is right to worry: Not only are gasoline prices expected to remain high, but the disruption of Gulf Coast infrastructure could lead to spectacularly expensive heating bills this winter, a hurricane-related cost that nobody has even begun to grapple with.
But that's no good reason for Congress to use the hurricanes as an excuse to ram through provisions that have no link to the current crisis. Among these are a proposal -- rejected during the last energy debate -- to grant liability exemption to the makers of MTBE, a gasoline additive believed to pollute groundwater. Also on the table is a proposal to waive or modify environmental regulations governing the construction of refineries. Frustration with the failure of oil companies to begin construction of a new Alaska natural gas pipeline has led Republicans to talk about setting a time limit on incentives passed to encourage that project, while some Democrats are asking whether the government should take over the project altogether.
The hard truth is that almost nothing Congress can do in the next few weeks is going to reduce the cost of filling an automobile tank or heating a home. The president has already said it: The only solution for this winter is going to be conservation. So turn down the thermostat, buy insulation and be prepared.