The philosophy of Secretary James Schlesinger and Deputy Secretary John O'Leary has survived their tenure in the form of an Energy Mobilization Board (EMB), which was proposed to "cut red tape" impending "critically needed" energy supply projects. But the crisis-management aura obscures a vital question: Does "red "tape" mean the procedural defects everyone wants fixed -- dilatory schedules, unconsolidated disparate hearings, uncoordinated agencies, and impact statements padded to disguise weakness with bulk? Or is "red "tape" a code phrase for the painstakingly crafted substantive laws governing clean air and water, strip-mining, toxic substances, endangered species, and advance assessment of alternatives -- or for the judicial review and public participation that give those laws pratical effect?
Even shorn of this ambiguity, the EMB would be a dangerous implement to leave lying in the way of future administration. Some senior officials even in the Carter administration, previously noted for its fine environmental record, have openly sought for months to use energy shortages as an exvcuse to gut the Clean Air Act. But the EMB is more deeply troublesome because it reflects the mistaken view that "procedural" requirements are a formalized game of hurdle-jumping rather than a serious effort to avoid mistakes.
To the extent that our political process seems cumbersome, it shows the health of democracy, for that process is meant to resolve by argument and compromise the fundamental conflicts that the EMB is meant to resolve by fiat -- notably whether the facility is needed "critically" or at all. If concentrating more power in a central institution like the EMB suppresses or bypasses doubts that now cause awkward contests, those doubts will not disappear. They will merely pop up elsewhere, only worse, because the doubters will rightly be incensed at having been denied due process.
The EMB philosophy has some partial precedents that merit reflection. Still bitter in memory is te trans-Alaska pipeline. Objectors to the original "critically needed" proposal argued, on sober analysis, that the oil should be strected out, used sparingly and piped to the Midwest (since on the West Coat it would cause a glut and have to be shipped to Japan), and that the pipeline would be leaky and astronomically expensive. They proved right on all counts. The oil companies are now immensely grateful that they were made to build a better (if still bad) pipeline that might not fall apart immediately, and at a date that saved them billions of dollars. But it was still and bad choice, rammed through Congress on Sipro Agnew's tie-breaking vote by duplicitous federal officials who thought their own wisdom and superior to public process. If we had stuck to that process, Alaskan oil would today be contributing far more to our security and prosperity. Whenever, as in that case, environmental lawsuits have delayed major energy projects, both the courts and history have consistently found the objectors right on the merits -- not a hindrance to be lightly disregarded.
For many years, too, we had a federal superagency that could and did cut red tape by overriding all state or local regulation of nuclear power plants. The Atomic Energy Commission's hearings to license provided the form of due process without its substance. By dedicated cynicism, the AEC achieved the operation of dozens of nuclear plants, many near our cities. Yet once again it appears, in hindsight, that the objections the AEC so cavalierly bypassed were justified. By rrefusing to give them serious and timely attention, this nation poured $100 billion down a rathole; and the AEC and its successors lost their perceived legitimacy, perhaps forever.
The gravest flaw in the EMB approach lies still deeper, in its reliance on central management. The agency problem is not like building an A-bomb or putting a man on the moon. It consists rather of billions of inefficient energy-using devices and thousands of insititutional barriers -- silly rules and habits that prevent people from using energy in ways that would save money. With such a diverse and fine-grained problem, central management is more part of the problem tham part of the solution; it is unnecessary and even an impediment.
President Carter's rhetorical tension between encouraging grass-roots and community innovation (the source of virtually all the good news about energy since 1973) and a $142 billion exercise in Nixonian technocracy reflects a deeper choice we must make -- between traditional ideals of individual enterprise, intelligence and decision, and the less democratic belief that the same distrusted bureaucratic and oligopolistic elites who many feel got us into this mess are the only source of the wisdom that we are incompetent to muster for ourselves. It is a choice between soft and hard energy paths; between Jefferson and Hamilton; and ultimately between democracy and tyranny.
Rather than emphasizing those actions surest to excite political divisions, waste time and money, and fail, surely we should seek to build national consensus where it already exists. We should rely on our relatively quick, cheap and safe (and absolutely enormous) opportunities for raising energy productivity and for harnessing the vast range of proven, appropriate renewable energy sources. If we add up and vigorously premote -- as in the president's fine reference to Davis, Calif. -- the things we nearly all agree about, they'll be enough. We can then forget the things we don't agree about, such as synfuels and the EMB, because they'll be superfluous.
We have never tried before to design an energy policy around an existing consensus, but it seems long past time we started. Not to do so is a failure of nerve, a failure to learn that the cause of problems has passed, a failure to mobilize the deep wisdom and ingenuity of our people, and a failure of trust -- trust that people can solve, as many are already solving, most of thier own energy problems if only they have incentive and opportunity. The kind of energy mobilization we need is happening today in hundred of communities and millions of homes across America. It doesn't need a board; it needs a modest government willing to lend a hand and then get out of the way.