If President Carter has his way, a handful of people, working from an office here in Washington, will be making decisions over the next 12 years on how to channel up to $110 billion into new energy ventures.
The planners would have access to $88 billion in government financing between now and 1990 -- much of it for federal loan guarantees -- to underwrite private development efforts.
At the same time, the group would not be accountable, at least on a day-to-day basis, to either Congress or the White House. Chartered as a quasi-private corporation, it would be exempt from restraints that most agencies must meet.
That is the potential for the new Energy Security Corporation President Carter wants to establish to run his massive crash program to find -- and develop -- new ways to produce synthetic fuels.
While controversy enough has arisen over the merits of synthetic fuels as an alternative to oil, questions about the new mechanism that would help operate the program have only begun to emerge.
Although the president has disclosed some more details since he proposed the new Energy Security Corporation idea July 15, most lawmakers still are in the dark about precisely how this potentially powerful enterprise would work.
On Capitol Hill, there are serious questions about why a quasi-private corporation is needed, how accountable it should be to Congress, and how much leeway it should have to decide what investments the private sector will make.
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), chairman of a special Budget Committee task force that is reviewing the entire synthetic fuels proposal, warns that setting up a quasi-private corporation "could be a dangerous precedent" if it goes awry.
And Alan Greenspan, who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Ford administration, brands the plan "a turkey," reminiscent of a similar, much-ridiculed $100 billion proposal by then vice president Rockefeller.
Greenspan believes that Carter's ESC would drive up the cost of developing synthetic fuels, encourage dubious projects, elbow out other more productive investment, and provide little to show for it in added energy supplies.
"Anytime you try to start up a new Manhattan Project, what you really are doing is saying 'the cost be damned -- build it at any price,' " Greenspan says. "There's just no way this can operate without turning into a pork barrel."
By far the most troublesome issue to most critics is the apparent sweeping authority the new corporation would have to direct and channel new investment for development of synthetic fuels, virtually as it saw fit.
Although the administration tags the program at $88 billion, officials are quick to concede it could affect $110 billion or more in actual investment, because a loan guarantee of $1 billion could launch an even more costly project.
Critics argue that sapping that much in private investment monies -- as such a corporation easily could do with the backing of federal guarantees -- would preempt the credit markets, possible crowding out more needed investments.
Analysts say such a massive infusion of federal backing also could dramatically heighten overall borrowing for synfuels projects, in turn significantly boosting the cost of developing synthetic fuels.
One outside analysis holds that the extra million barrels a day that some economists believe the corporation would produce could cost 20 to 40 percent more than they otherwise would have.
Skeptics also have posted other questions about the ESC and its operations that reflect serious doubts about what the administration is proposing:
Would Carter's plan give the new corporation too much money, inviting the possibility that political pressure could prompt financing of questionable proposals -- building a project "for the project's sake"?
Would the new ESC be sufficiently accountable to Congress and the White House? Carter's proposal envisions periodic review of the ESC'S appropriations, but wants the firm's day-to-day decision making free from direct supervision.
Is it good policy to allow the ESC to escape regular budgetary scrutiny by making its outlays an "off-budget" item, as Carter seems to have proposed? Off-budget spending is not included in the regular budget.
The administration is just beginning to explain the plan to Congress and the public, and the picture that emerges is somewhere in between what its supporters and its critics descry.
The ESC would be run by a seven member board comprising the secretaries of Treasury, Energy and Interior and four "outsiders," selected by the president from energy firms, manufacturers and environmental groups.The president also would name the corporation's chairman. The nominations would be subject to confirmation by the Senate.
In a narrow sense, the aim of the new corporation would be to eliminate risk-taking from the development and production of synthetic fuels so private firms would find such ventures more attractive.
The ESC would guarantee loans made to energy firms by private banks, or else make direct loans itself. It also would contract to buy synthetic fuels, or guarantee producers a specific price.
On occasion, it might directly construct a synthetic fuels plant -- a project that would run into several billion dollars. The ESC would be empowered to build up to three such facilities on its own.
While the quasi-private corporation theoretically would be only a silent partner in private firms' ventures, it actually would decide a msssive portion of the nation's investment.
Carter administration officials concede there are "legitimate safeguards" that Congress should be considering, but they are optimistic about defending their plan in committee.
W. Bowman Cutter, the Office of Management and Budget official spearheading the ESC, says the corporation is "an essential part" of Carter's crash effort to develop synthetic fuels as an alternative to oil.
"I'm pretty confident that we're going to get some kind of legislation close to what the president has proposed," Cutter says. "Congress has every reason to look closely at this program, but I think they'll agree it should pass."
The rationale for turning to a quasi-private corporation instead of letting a government agency run the program is simple: there are so many constraints on government that a regular agency would be hamstrung, officials say.
Some in the administration also argued for the ESC as a way to keep the synfuels program out of the Energy Department, which has a poor reputation.
Critics contend that with this broad mandate and deep money pool -- and no day-to-day oversight from the White House or Congress -- the new ESC easily could waste dollars on dubious projects.
White House contends the restrictions already are tight enough: The ESC would be able to invest only in efforts to develop or produce synthetic fuels from coal, biomass, unconventional gases or shale.
"It really is very limited, within those parameters," a strategist contends. "It couldn't build a solar-powered satellite, for example. And it can't roll loans over or invest itself in various ventures."
The question of the ESC'S accountability is certain to be hotly debated in Congress.
Carter has warned the lawmakers the ESC could not operate if it had to answer to them on individual projects and decisions.
However, critics say the every-two-years review that Carter envisions simply would not be sufficient for an entity that spends that much government money. There may be further efforts at compromise.
For all the controversy, the ESC plan would deal with only a small part of the synfuels effort -- getting the ball rolling and channeling the money into development and production.
A major problem, reducing the uncertainties posed by complex and changing environmental regulations, would not even be touched by the program. (Carter has proposed a separate emergency board to try to cope with that dilemma.)
The ESC argument is quite now, while the lawmakers are on their August recess, but it's expected to heat up again in September, when the Senate begins consideration of the plan.
The House already has approved a mini-version of the ESC, drafted by Rep. William Moorhead (D-Pa.). The Senate Energy Committee is expected to expand that legislation and add restrictions to Carter's original plan.
And Hart's new synfuels task force plans hearings in early September, with a preliminary report in midmonth on the budget aspects.
There's no telling at this point whether the ESC plan will pass intact or, like Rockefeller's ill-fated proposal, will fizzle into obscurity. But, as Hart says, "We're going to take a good close look at this."