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Bush energy plan: Return to oilfields

The shift toward exploration recalls an earlier era, but today's environmental ethos is stronger.

By Abraham McLaughlin Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 7, 2001



WASHINGTON

As former oilman and now-President George W. Bush prepares to lay out a comprehensive national energy policy, he's set to inaugurate a whole new era in America's thinking about energy.

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His plan to shift Uncle Sam's energy emphasis - from protecting land to encouraging exploration for fossil fuels - will pave the way for a controversial frenzy of new oil and gas drilling on a scale not seen since the 1950s. It may also give fresh impulse to less-contentious ideas, too - such as energy accords with Mexico and Canada and a natural-gas pipeline stretching from Alaska to the lower 48.

Bush's plan - accompanied by public worries that a California-style energy crisis could sweep the nation - is already sparking an energy debate that recalls the oil-crisis years of the 1970s. On one side are the pro-exploration forces, now with the power of the administration behind them, arguing that Americans cannot expect a continuation of low energy bills unless they open up more land - and even permit power plants and pipelines through their "backyards." On the other is an environmental ethic, far more internalized now than in the 1970s, whose representatives warn that lower energy prices may not be worth the possibly exorbitant environmental costs.

"The last time we had a major opening of a frontier for oil and gas exploration was in the Eisenhower administration," says James Osten, chief energy economist at Standard & Poor's DRI. Historically, that's "the closest thing on the scale of what's being proposed now."

Bush's energy blueprint - which Vice President Cheney is now charged with turning into full-fledged policy - calls for spending $7.1 billion over 10 years to promote oil and natural gas development through tax incentives and other tools.

It would grant waivers to states to run older power plants at peak capacity - despite the potential for violating clean-air standards. It would ease restrictions on drilling in parts of Alaska's 1.5 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And it would reverse a trend of emphasizing clean-burning natural gas and encourage production of all energy sources, including coal, though Bush would fund development of "clean coal" technologies.

Administration officials say they'll look into overturning 11th-hour moves by President Clinton to block development in vast tracts of Western lands - although in some cases that process could take up to two years.

Indeed, Washington's role in energy production can be enormous for one single reason - the amount of land it controls. In all, 60 percent of the nation's untapped crude-oil reserves and 52.4 percent of its natural-gas reserves are on federal lands, says David Morehouse of the Energy Information Administration here. In Alaska, those numbers jump even higher: to 86 percent for crude oil and 62.2 percent for natural gas.

That's why Bush says opening ANWR is an important part of energy development. Yet to do so, he must get congressional approval, which could be hard, given environmentalists' passion for blocking the idea. They say it will sully "America's Serengeti" and harm its many plant and animal species.

Continental free-flow

One less-controversial idea is a natural-gas pipeline from Alaska. Several groups have scouted out routes, including one that would run underground, thus risking less environmental damage. Also, deals with Canada and Mexico would alleviate energy shortages by enabling free flow of power on the continent.

Also, the Rocky Mountains are expected to be a less-controversial source for natural gas - and in fact may soon beat out Texas as the nation's main source for it. National demand for gas is expected to rise 30 percent - as nearly all of the electricity generating plants now under construction rely on it.

'Energy has to come from somewhere'

As for the national energy debate, Bush "can do a lot by refocusing the discussion on supply," says Linda Stuntz, a deputy energy secretary in the first Bush administration. "We're doing a good job poking holes where we're allowed to," she says, "but without increased access, we won't be able to keep up with demand." After all, "it has to come from somewhere."

Advocates of more access say the public can't have it both ways. A poll by the Associated Press hints at the public's often-contradictory attitudes toward energy. Sixty percent of respondents said they were worried about energy problems such as those in California, yet just 33 percent favored opening ANWR.

Environmentalists, too, argue that the public can't have it both ways. There are drastic environmental consequences to drilling widely, they say, in the name of cheap pump prices and electric bills.

Yet there is a history of compromise and moderation between drilling and conservation - even by Republican presidents. President Nixon, for instance, created the Environmental Protection Agency. And President Bush backed the Rio climate-control treaty. "In four short years," says Nancy Kete of the World Resources Institute, referring to the first President Bush, "the last Republican president supported and was party to very significant progress on climate control."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society