One of the strangest bills now moving through Congress is President Carter's energy corner-cutter. Arguing that the legal procedures confronting large energy projects -- a synthetic fuel plant, for example, or a pileline -- have become intolerably cumbersome and time-consuming, Mr. Carter last summer proposed an Energy Mobilization Board. It would be designed along the lines of a large mowing machine. The general idea is that it would go clanking and slashing its way briskly through the legal thicket, leaving in its trail a succession of neatly baled energy projects.
Unfortunately, that legal thicket includes the procedures that protect the country's standards of air quality, water purity and land use. Two different versions of the administration's bill seem to be heading toward a collision in the House this week, and there is intense controversy over their relative merits. The combatants seem to have overlooked the basic point that this kind of legislation is wrong in principle.
It's quite true that the most formidable procedures confront anyone trying to build any large new industrial plant in this country. Mr. Carter and Congress now appear to be conceding that the burden is insupportable -- but, instead of orderly reform and consolidation, they want an Energy Mobilization Board with authority to waive some of these requirements at its discretion. Since all of these laws have got out of hand, they are saying, the government will enforce some of them only sometimes. The Senate has already passed a bill. In the House, the quarrel is over safeguards -- which, we will observe in passing, are already getting very complicated and lawyerish. It's turning into a very complicated kind of simplification.
This subject always benefits from the examination of specific examples. Last week the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission moved on the application for a plant in North Dakota to make gas out of coal. It is precisely the kind of project for which the Energy Mobilization Board is being designed. The plant's sponsors, a consortium of gas companies, began seeking their permits in 1972. The rate question has been before the FERC and its predecessor agency for four and a half years. For the past year, the question has been whether the billion-dollar cost ot the plant is to be borne by the consumers who buy the gas or by the taxpayers. Last Wednesday, the commission overruled him and said it ought to be the consumers. Next comes a hearing on the rate of structure. If it can be settled promptly, construction can start next spring. The plant could be in operation in 1983 -- 11 years after the first permit application was filed.
But the lesson here is that the process is necessarily a long and uncertain one. Questions like the rate structure cannot possibly be settled quickly or easily. This project has, in fact, had pretty good cooperation from all the public authorities with which it has had to deal. Congress and the administration can do much to consolidate and expedite procedures within the federal government. But the idea of leaving all the present procedures in place for most applicants, while waiving them for a favored few, is a fundamentally bad one. It is an invitation to litigation on a scale that can only aggravate the present delays.