August 16, 2005 | Commentary on Social Security
It sometimes seems the longer that legislation hangs around
Washington, the worse it gets. That's certainly the case with the
recently signed energy bill.
President Bush had been trying for years to convince lawmakers to pass an energy bill. But when they finally did, all the … well, energy had been sucked out of it. In the end, it was typical Washington pork. There's plenty of new spending -- an estimated $12.3 billion over 10 years, twice as much as the original proposal -- but few real solutions.
Start with oil. When most people think of energy, they think of gasoline. Any sensible bill would take steps to increase the domestic production of oil. It's critical we start reducing our dependence on foreign providers, especially since so many of them are in bad neighborhoods.
We happen to have large oil reserves waiting to be tapped beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. But the bill Congress passed specifically ignores ANWR. "If we put it in, we wouldn't be here," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, explained to reporters.
It's true that previous energy bills had failed because liberals wouldn't agree to pass a measure that allowed drilling in ANWR. But no bill is better than a bad bill. If we're not going to take the most reasonable step available to boost energy production, there's really no point in passing an energy bill at all. (ANWR, fortunately, isn't dead; it's likely to pass when lawmakers try to reconcile the budget in September.)
Not only does this bill ignore potential solutions, it actually recycles the failed policies of the past. The bill provides tax breaks for homeowners who install solar panels -- a "reform" measure first drafted by the Carter administration.
President Reagan removed those tax breaks when it became clear they wouldn't work, just as a future administration is certain to remove them again. In the meantime, another generation of homeowners will learn to their chagrin that the upfront cost of solar panels is larger than the amount they're likely to save by installing them.
Lawmakers deserve credit for at least attempting to take a step forward on nuclear power. Nuclear plants are efficient and produce zero emissions, and we need to build more of them to fill our growing need for electricity. The bill provides billions of dollars in tax credits for utilities, which could translate into as many as six new nuclear plants.
But the energy bill leaves the big question unanswered. Until utilities are assured they will have a permanent place to store their nuclear waste, they're not likely to break ground on new plants, regardless of tax breaks. At one existing plant in Illinois, there are 24 silos, each packed with 13 tons of nuclear waste. No utility wants to assume that sort of headache. A useful energy bill would do something to fix the problem.
Having the waste stored in a secure, central location would be far safer than storing it on-site at scores of plants around the country. Plenty of studies have shown Yucca Mountain is the best place to put our nuclear waste. But again, lawmakers ducked that issue in the energy bill.
Washington insiders, even conservative officials, seem resigned to the big spending status quo. "It's the best energy bill that can be passed," Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell said.
Respectfully, sir, it isn't. It must be possible to "solve" a problem without throwing tens of billion of dollars at it. And it must be possible for lawmakers to target bills narrowly -- so the new law will solve problems rather than merely providing tax breaks to the energy industry.
Something good can still come out of this bill, if it energizes conservatives in Congress to finally take charge and crack down on wasteful spending. Otherwise, the bill's merely another waste of time, money and power.
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.