Power Trade-Offs

A sound, long-term energy policy for the United States will involve difficult, even painful, trade-offs. That conclusion by a task force of 51 energy experts, working under auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, could set the tone for national debate.

The most controversial trade-offs will pit environmental regulations against energy requirements.

The findings of the task force, which included input from oil and gas executives, will feed into the energy-policy review being conducted by Vice President Cheney. In fact, it could well anticipate the Cheney panel's conclusions - such as the likelihood that other states could experience energy problems similar to California's if this summer is a hot one.

Other forecasts: higher gasoline prices, and natural-gas supply crunches.

Among the tough choices: how to reduce "infrastructure bottlenecks," sometimes caused by well-intentioned environmental rules. Take, for example, the multiple grades of gas at the pump. Environmental rules at the national, state, and local level have led to some 55 different grades of gas across the US, requiring complicated refining and delivery systems. The task-force suggests an environmental/energy dialogue take place to get the number of those grades down.

Another tough trade-off: requiring sports utility vehicles to comply with the same gas-mileage requirements as other cars. That could free up some 1 million barrels of oil a day, but could take years. In contrast, some argue that opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling could bring needed oil to market relatively soon. But one task force member rightly noted that we can't simply "drill our way" out of the problem.

Integrating energy and environmental priorities and facing up to the task of making these hard choices is better done now than later. And it's better to steer policy options toward long-term solutions, including continued development of nonpolluting alternatives such as solar and wind, rather than quick power fixes.

One encouraging observation from the task force: Perceived inconsistencies in applying environmental standards, rather than standards themselves, bother industry most. That suggests room for productive, responsible bargaining.

The Bush administration can begin this dialogue, and the public can be educated to the realities ahead. People need to understand that the country's energy crisis can't be boiled down to a question of whether or not to drill in Alaska, keeping the lights on at any cost, or assuming a free flow of foreign oil when production capacity is peaking around the world.

Improved energy policies will stick closely to principles of flexibility, diverse sources, and balance.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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