Keep the new energy-board within the law

Congressional conferees are near agreement on virtually all aspects of legislation to create an Energy Mobilization Board intended to cut through government red tape and speed up development of synthetic and other fuels. Holding up final approval of this major segment of the Carter energy program, however, are questionable provisions that would give the board authority to override present and future laws if it considers them a hindrance to development of essential energy projects.

The Senate rejected giving the proposed board the ability to waive laws. The Carter administration also has opposed this approach. And the public and the White House ought to give strong support to those House and Senate conferees who have stood firm against placing so much authority in the hands of a narrowly focused panel susceptible to industry and other special-interest pressures.

The key question for Congress and the Carter administration is whether the needed push for energy development should be made at the expense of hard-won federal environmental protection laws -- and in disregard of the concerns of state and local governments. Environmental lawyers warn that allowing the mobilization board to waive substantive federal laws -- and, under certain circumstances, state and local statutes -- could endanger much of the environmental progress the US has made over the past decade. Thrown into jeopardy, for instance, would be federal clean air and water standards and laws restricting construction in the national park system.

The Carter administration has argued that it does not need the override authority for the mobilization board to be effective. And, indeed, the other agreed-upon provisions would give the panel broad authority, among other things, to combine hearings and streamline regulatory procedures, to set deadlines by which federal, state, and local agencies must make decisions on priority projects, and, in the event an agency misses a deadline, to make the decision in its place.

A case might be made for a so-called "grandfather clause" that would authorize a waiver of future laws enacted after commitments have been made and money spent on construction of a priority project. But some sort of presidential or congressional review ought to be included in any waiver provision. One compromise proposal that seems reasonable would require an annual report from the President and the board to Congress calling attention to any laws that pose substantial obstacles to completion of priority energy projects. Congress could then decide whether remedial legislation is called for.

A mobilization board with teeth enough to cut through time-consuming red tape to get speedy clearance for top-priority energy projects could serve the interests of both industry and public. One possible spinoff might even be an overall improvement in efficiency by regulatory agencies. But this ought to be attainable without sacrificing the environment or setting the potentially dangerous precedent of empowering a small group of unelected bureaucrats with authority to bypass the law.

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