Power politics of energy woes

The White House and Congress are considering radical ideas to stave off an energy crunch - and the voters' wrath.

Here's an idea: If Los Angeles runs short of electricity this summer, let's hook the USS Enterprise's nuclear reactor to the city's power grid, and let the Navy light up the City of Angels.

Sound far-fetched? Maybe. But the simple fact that members of Congress are floating such ideas shows the political power of the power issue.

It's a national sensitivity that the Bush administration surely has in the back of its mind as it crafts what officials are billing as a comprehensive approach to America's energy woes. It's likely that any package will have to address not just long-term needs, but short-term crises that could quickly undermine any chief executive's popularity.

Just ask Jimmy Carter. Gasoline lines were one reason the American people decided he didn't need to remain in the White House as long as the Constitution allows.

"Americans are a very practical people," says Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion specialist at the American Enterprise Institute here. "They want a government that works." In the 1970s, many thought President Carter's government wasn't working - and blamed him for the triple punch of energy troubles, inflation, and high unemployment. The oil crisis, Ms. Bowman says, "was the beginning of deep public concern that he was incompetent at home and impotent abroad."

The first test of whether voters still hold politicians accountable for energy problems is now under way in California. So far, Gov. Gray Davis (D) has mostly avoided citizens' wrath over blackouts. But his political foes see the state's energy crisis as a golden opportunity. This week the utility commission approved electricity rate hikes of up to 46 percent. Perhaps coincidentally, Republican Secretary of State Bill Jones also announced he'll challenge the suddenly more-vulnerable Mr. Davis.

In New York, Gov. George Pataki (R) is rushing to quiet the rumblings of energy worries. The New York Power Authority is hustling to install 11 small generators in and around New York City before summer's electricity-guzzling season begins. Already, one Democratic opponent accuses him of bungling deregulation, and environmental groups are suing over the fact that the new generators will bypass air-quality regulations.

Knowing that chief executives often take the blame for energy shortages, the White House has worked hard to stay far from West Coast troubles. "California created the environment where this problem matured," says White House Chief of Staff Andy Card.

If the crisis becomes a national one, though, his team knows they've got to respond. Even so, Mr. Card expresses a note of caution: "If you have short-term solutions that make the problem worse, don't do it."

That means, among other things, no price caps. Putting a ceiling on prices would further skew the market, many Republicans argue.

But others counter that California's market isn't functioning properly, so price hikes alone won't fix it. They add that Bush hasn't used the bully pulpit to encourage conservation, which may be the easiest short-term solution.

Yesterday Bush continued to press for exploration rather than conservation. "I will not accept a plan that will hurt our economy," he said in a press conference. "I'm interested in getting more energy supply so that businesses can grow and people can heat their homes."

Among the options considered by the Bush energy policy team - headed by Vice President Dick Cheney - are some from Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas. They include the naval ship nuclear-reactor plan. Other short-term ideas are:

* Firing up emergency generators at military bases and other federal facilities to lessen their strain on the power grid. Such generators, however, contribute to smog.

* Encouraging malls, factories, and other power hogs to install their own mini-power plants - fuel cells or microturbines. This reduces their consumption from the grid during peak times. The government could quickly set up standards to jumpstart such "distributed generation."

* Pressuring the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to require Western power sellers to refund any "unjust and unreasonable" profits. Businesses oppose this idea, while consumer groups champion it.

* Ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to ease limits on smog pollutants - a contentious idea that environmentalists oppose.

* Allowing the restart of mothballed nuclear-power plants - also a controversial idea.

Whatever the package, it's got to come fast if it's going to make much difference, says Samantha Jordan, a spokeswoman for Representative Barton. "If there's going to be anything, it would have to be pretty much now or in the next few weeks."

Mr. Cheney is expected to unveil his plan in April.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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