March 21, 2001 | Commentary on Energy and Environment
Depending on whom you talk to, the president is: pandering to the oil lobby, masquerading as a conservationist, focusing too much on long-term solutions, destroying the environment, or creating an artificial crisis.
They're wrong. The plan makes a good deal of sense largely because the president understands basic economics. His plan takes a giant step toward allowing the market to correct the current imbalance between supply and demand.
Some people urge more conservation. That's fine, and conservation should be encouraged on a personal level (no need to run the home air conditioner on a 74-degree day). But conservation can't solve the problem by itself.
The other 49 states can learn a lot from California, where the recipe for blackouts has been perfected. Just add excessive federal regulations that boost the cost of electrical production and discourage new production to a flawed deregulation plan. Mix in price controls, and you've got a market for flashlights.
But it's not just California. Bad energy policies have affected the whole country, with consumers elsewhere experiencing higher gasoline prices and rising utility bills. Failing to deal with these problems will threaten America's prosperity.
President Bush's energy plan is designed to increase supply through a variety of measures, including improvements to the nation's aging energy infrastructure. While not perfect, his plan would move America past an energy policy based on crisis management to one that can meet the needs of future generations. Consider some highlights.
More Electricity: Since 1973, U.S. energy consumption has increased by about 30 percent -- roughly the same as our population growth. Simply put, there are more people using energy to power their homes, cars, air conditioners, televisions and computers. But the number of power plants and lines hasn't increased in proportion to the population surge, so prices have risen.
President Bush wants to increase the energy supply by building new power plants, opening a tiny portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development (a move supported by trade unions such as the Teamsters), and developing new technologies for alternative fuels. The president supports this because he knows price controls don't work. They encourage consumption and impede investment.
Nuclear Power Now: President Bush also would increase the energy supply through nuclear power. Opponents are quick to raise the specter of Three Mile Island or even Chernobyl. But the Three Mile Island accident involved only a tiny amount of leakage in the first place and no loss of life or widespread increase in disease. As for Chernobyl, no plant in this country ever has or will operate with so little regard for safety.
Besides, nuclear power plants already supply about 20 percent of U.S. electricity, and hardly anyone complains. Yes, more nuclear power means more nuclear waste -- which is why the president urges the use of a centralized waste site far from population centers.
More Trade for Oil: President Bush wants to trade with more nations for oil, and his proposal couldn't come at a better time. About 56 percent of the oil the United States uses is imported, mostly from the Middle East. In contrast, when we had our first energy crisis in 1973, only 35 percent of our oil came from foreign sources.
The president would expand oil and gas trade agreements with Canada and Mexico, and he wants to trade more with oil-producing countries other than those in the Middle East, such as countries in Africa, the Caspian Sea region and South America. In short, oil is a global -- not a regional -- commodity, and we should shop accordingly.
The president's plan has its weak spots. For example, it would throw even more federal money at alternative fuel sources, such as clean coal technology, wind, solar, hybrid gas-electric cars and organic waste. But despite the billions of taxpayer dollars that have been spent so far on alternative energy, we've developed enough affordable power from those sources to meet only 3 percent of our energy demands.
For the most part, though, the president's plan represents a responsible approach to the energy crisis. Let's hope Congress gives it the serious consideration it deserves. To do otherwise could carry long-term consequences. Any response that isn't market-based can't help but leave everyone in the dark.
Charli Coon is an energy policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy institute. A longer version of this article recently appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune.
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