A lot of frustrations were reflected in the House Commerce Committee's vote Thursday to put high-priority energy projects on a "fast track" that could override almost any federal, state or local law that might get in the way. The committee did not entrust the formidable waiver power entirely to the proposed energy mobilization board. Instead, the board would make recommendations to the president, whose decision to set aside any law would be subject to veto by either house of Congress within 60 days. This might seem to bring enough accountable officials into the act -- or rather the act of overriding the acts. Still, it turns the traditional legislative process upside down -- besides creating a mechanism for the most arbitrary interference with state and local prerogatives.
Behind this extraordinary bill is the belief that recent laws and regulations, mainly in the environmental field, have become so complex and delay-ridden that building any energy project, no matter how urgent, is nearly impossible. There is some truth in that. But bulldozing away the laws is far too rough and undiscriminating a remedy. For instance, many of the most frustrating, arbitrary delays come from procedural snarls -- the seemingly endless environmental-impact review, or agencies' slowness in issuing rules under various laws. A batch of related problems have come from conflicts among federal agencies and administrators' reluctance to make tough, controversial judgment calls. The long fights over the Seabrook, N.H., nuclear power plant and the proposed refinery at Portsmouth are textbook examples of that -- and of the kinds of tangles that a more limited expediting bill might well resolve.
Then there are the jams that no law can override, the ones caused by the current penchant for taking every argument to court -- and by some judges' willingness to entertain even the most preposterous challenges to laws and rules. Far from reducing these squabbles, a peremptory bill such as the Commerce Committee's could easily redouble them. It would certainly provoke new bitter litigation between the federal government and the states -- often over matters that could be resolved more quickly and amicably through political channels.
Finally, the Commerce Committee bill advances the dangerous illusion that the real conflicts retarding energy production are those between projects and laws. Not so; the tensions are between the projects and other values and priorities, some of which have been embodied in laws. For instance, western coal producers are complaining about provisions in the strip-mining law that protect water resources. But waiving those provisions is not going to make western water any more plentiful or the conflicts between energy and other potential uses, such as agriculture, any less intense. Yes, a waiver would settle that issue in a given case. And that points to one more damaging element of this ripper bill: it is another acknowledgment of Congress' inability to deal with these immense problems overall. If Congress and the country were really mobilized behind any coherent energy program, no peremptory measure like this would be required.