October 1, 2002

October 1, 2002 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

ed100102: A Polluted Process

Politics, they say, is the art of compromise. You give something, I give something. In the end, we wind up with something everyone's happy with. That's how worthwhile legislation is forged, right?

Yes, usually. But compromise could earn a bad name from the old-fashioned "horse-trading" under way as federal lawmakers try to hammer out a deal over energy legislation they hope to send President Bush sometime soon.

Those who favor the Bush approach, for example, are considering a host of "climate control" measures to reduce greenhouse gases in exchange for the right to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). But both provisions will play far too great a role in America's energy future to be treated as pawns on a political chessboard.

Congressional negotiators should stop and ask: What's our goal? Presumably, it's to provide Americans a safe, secure, plentiful supply of energy at affordable prices. Energy brings growth; growth brings economic vitality, and economic vitality brings a higher standard of living.

If this is so, then some actions become clear. The committee that's working on the energy legislation must keep measures that promote energy security and drop those that don't.

For example, the committee should allow oil exploration in ANWR. The payoff -- as much oil as we would buy from Saudi Arabia in 56 years -- is great. And the cost -- a "footprint" the size of a large airport in an area the size of South Carolina -- is small.

Besides, the environmental risk from new "slant-drilling" techniques is virtually non-existent. As House Energy Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin recently told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, if drilling can proceed in his environmentally sensitive native state of Louisiana, it certainly can proceed in the Alaskan tundra. A pollster from Alaska, David Dittman, estimates that more oil leaks from cars in a Wal-Mart parking lot in a single day than has spilled at the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, just north of the ANWR site, in 27 years of operation.

Similarly, committee members should scrap any attempt to increase subsidies for "renewable" fuels, such as wind and solar power. Over the last two decades, American taxpayers have lavished $11 billion on the developers of wind and solar power -- and for what?

Wind, solar, geothermal and "biomass" energy accounted for 2 percent of America's electric power in 2000, and the federal government estimates it won't account for more than 3 percent by 2020. These energy sources are tremendously expensive. Wind power, even from the most vast and windy outposts (in other words, nowhere near where most people need energy), costs twice as much as natural gas. And "renewable" sources require backup since the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow. The costs to transmit this energy far exceed that of energy sources such as coal or oil.

Yet the Senate version of the energy legislation would require electricity suppliers to obtain escalating portions of their energy from renewable sources. The standard would start at 1 percent in 2005 and climb to 10 percent by 2020. They could fulfill the requirement by buying the high-cost renewables, buying "credits" from power companies that bought the renewables or buying credits from the Energy Department. All three options would serve mainly to raise energy costs for consumers.

And if the goal is plentiful, affordable energy, why does the Senate version of the legislation call for what amounts to a self-imposed Kyoto Accord? President Bush rejected Kyoto -- an agreement that calls for drastic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions by the United States but lets many of the world's worst polluters, including China and India, off scot-free -- because it would cost our economy up to $400 billion and because it would do little to help the environment.

That's right. Though professional activists present as gospel the theory that global warming is largely man-made, more than 17,000 scientists who study all aspects of climate and the environment have signed a petition citing the lack of actual proof and opposing Kyoto-like restraints. Even supporters of the Kyoto treaty admit its beneficial effects would be minimal. With Kyoto, they say, average temperatures would climb 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 100 years, versus 1 degree without.

Congress should shun horse-trading when it comes to energy policy. It ought to set a reasonable and desirable goal -- plentiful and affordable energy for all Americans -- and work from there. Our economy, our strength as a nation -- not to mention common sense -- demand that we do things a little differently this time.

Charli Coon is an energy policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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