LAST SUMMER, while most of Washington was leaping onto the synthetic fuels bandwagon, a remarkably bad idea was proposed by the Carter administration and passed by the House. This was the proposal to create an Engery Mobilization Board that would have the power to put the construction of new energy facilities on a "fast track." The EMB, so the argument went, would cut through all the red tape and the "10,000 foolish regulations" and speed the arrival of national energy self-sufficiency.
So far so good: cutting red tape and eliminating redundant government reviews are fine goals -- if applied across the board. But the four presidential appointees who would constitute the EMB would have the power to speed up only certain select projects, thereby distorting the marketplace by handing an enormous competitive advantage to a lucky few. This arrangement would certainly provoke lawsuits from all sides.
Even worse is the proposal, now being considered by the House-Senate conference, to give the EMB authority to waive substantive federal laws, including all environmental, health and safety laws -- the product of a decade of study and debate. Such a waiver could have very bad consequences, because synthetic fuel plants -- most likely to need and therefore receive the EMB's help -- pose big environmental problems.
Consider a few examples: Oil shale has already been found to contain a known carcinogen, and scientists expect that, because of their similar nature, other synthetic fuels will as well. Oil shale plants are expected to produce about one ton of solid waste for every barrel of oil they produce. This waste, if not properly disposed of, could pollute the West's scarce water supply, ultimately producing a hazardous waste problem that would make today's Love Canals look like nothing. Mistakes would be extraordinarily painful since the water -- contaminated, for example, by poisonous arsenic or cadmium -- might be essential for irrigating next year's crops. Air pollution -- including sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain), dioxin and other possible carcinogens -- may be equally serious. Land disruption and soil erosion could be widespread.
All this is not to say that synthetic fuels shouldn't be developed. But it should be clear that they and all other energy sources must be developed with caution, and with environmental and health protections in place. Painful experience has taught that the costs of repairing environmental damage, whether to people or to resources, is always much higher than the cost of avoiding the damage in the first place. The EMB may well end up slowing energy development instead of speeding it up (one lawyer, long an expert in this field, calls it "the most litigious piece of legislation I've seen"). But if Congress is bent on approval, it should at least leave its own health and environmental laws intact by dropping the substantive waiver provision and the phony "compromise" grandfather clause along with it.