Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) is no mincer of words, which is well enough known. But he does not mince on offering his time or energies either.
In the Senate a few days ago, in debate of a resolution that would greatly help an energy consortium and banks to move ahead with the construction of the Alaska natural gas pipeline, Metzenbaum told his colleagues that the resolution "reflects greed. . . . If you think that this deal can be justified in your state, go out and talk to your people and tell them what is in it. If you want me to come along, I will come along and debate you publicly. This is a raw deal. You should not be doing it."
Metzenbaum had no takers. That wasn't surprising. What senator, favoring waivers to several current energy laws, would want to go before citizens and be defenseless against the pro-consumer pro-fairness and pro-free enterprise arguments that Metzenbaum would offer?
It was much better -- because it was much quicker and speedier -- to engage in a quickie hour-long debate that ended in a 75-49 vote in favor of the resolution. One of the viewers would require that consumers be pre-charged -- through their monthly gas bills -- the costs of the pipeline, even if it is never finished nor a drop of gas delivered.
An examination of the debate is worthwhile because the House is scheduled to vote soon also.
The pipeline is projected as running from Alaska's North Slope to California in one branch and to Illinois in another. With the $40 billion, 4,790-mile project hailed as history's greatest earth-removal program, the issue now is dollar removal.
Whose dollars? Metzenbaum says that "the major banks have scrutinized this project and decided that there is a major risk that the pipeline might not be completed or that the Alaskan gas might not be marketable."
With the banks and consortium unwilling to lend their money, that leaves the consumers. "Modifications" to the laws, as passed by the Senate, mean that the consumers would be stuck with the bill should the risky project not be completed on schedule by 1987.
Their bills won't be small. Estimates range from between $11-$200 a year per residence in Michigan to $82-$89 per year in California. Citing these figures, Metzenbaum says the bills would continue for 20 years. The money would begin being paid in 1987 if any of the pipeline's three segments are completed, even though the gas is undelivered because the overall project is uncompleted.
Supporters of the waivers argued that consumers -- residential and industrial -- shouldn't worry. The risk is minimal that they will be required to pay. But Metzenbaum asked precisely the right question: "If the risk on noncompletion and delay is as small as the pipeline sponsors claim, then there is no need for any of these waivers. If the risks exist, then they should not be borne merely by consumers who face the danger of seeing their gas bills go up sharply in 1987 when getting nothing in return."
Four years ago, Congress accepted assurances from the energy consortium that consumers couldn't be brokered into this game as unwilling financial backers. But now Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.), favoring the resolution, argues that "we must approach these difficult issues pragmatically. We must all adapt to a changing, dynamic world."
Jackson's cliches are as squishy as the Alaskan permafrost in spring. The world has't changed so dynamically since 1977 that the rules must now be drastically altered. As Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.) said in floor debate: If an energy company "will not risk its assets to gain a substantial profit, why should a small businessman in Minnesota be expected to take on the risk of the project when he has no possibility of gain."
The pipeline consortium -- well-financed in its Washington lobbying effort -- has been playing on congressional fears about national security to go against the waivers is to oppose the delivery of Alaska's gas. It isn't. The vote against the waivers is a vote in favor of corporate resourcefulness. If the project is economically sound, then surely the wealthy energy industry -- never bashful in boasting of its can-do creativity -- can figure out a way to build and finance it. If the pipeline isn't able to hold its own in the marketplace, why continue?
The upcoming vote in the House will center on what kind of free enterprise the public deserves. In the old-style kind, the consumer paid his bills when the seller delivered the goods. But in new-style free enterprise, preferred by the energy companies and their bankers, the consumer pays whether he gets the goods or not. Old is better. It has to do with basic American fairness.