Reinventing the energy wheel

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In our democracy, policy challenges either are addressed through leadership or escalate into a crisis. If elected leaders are unable or unwilling to take the risks necessary to do what's right, then the ensuing crisis forces the public to demand action. If action or time fails to resolve the problem, then the crisis cycle is likely to begin again.

The energy crisis is the perfect example of a nation "reinventing the wheel" each time we confront the same challenge. We've been here before.

In the early 1970s, it was obvious that rising demand for energy was making the nation more dependent on oil imports. Low prices discouraged domestic production and alternatives like nuclear power were controversial. There was little effort to promote other alternatives, and with boundless supplies of oil flowing from the Mideast, the American standard of living had no limits.

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On Oct. 17, 1973, the oil embargo hit. Oil prices quadrupled, gas lines appeared, stations refused to sell more than 10 gallons to a single customer, gas prices skyrocketed from 25 cents a gallon to more than $1, and home heating oil increases followed.

Public outrage forced action. President Nixon formed the Energy Department, and plans were formulated to make the United States energy independent. There was a boom in domestic exploration; industries switched to coal-fired equipment; housing codes mandated energy efficiency; incentives and tax credits were offered for the development and utilization of alternative energy sources; and a "strategic stockpile" was established to meet defense needs.

American lifestyles also changed - the 55 m.p.h. speed limit was enacted, daylight savings time was instituted year-round, homeowners turned thermostats down to 65 degrees, and families drove more fuel-efficient automobiles.

Unfortunately, as oil supplies again increased, the US went back to many of its old habits: speed limits and thermostats went up; fuel efficiency went down; incentives and research money for alternatives were reduced; and large homes, computers, high-tech industries, and sports vehicles demanded even more energy use. In the absence of strong leadership to drive a balanced energy policy, crisis again confronts the US public.

When President Bush's press secretary was asked whether the president would be asking citizens to change their lifestyles, given that we consume more energy per capita than any other nation, he said, "That's a big no." President Bush wants more coal mines, oil refineries, gas pipelines, power lines, and nuclear reactors. He is promoting conservation and alternative fuels, but he clearly doesn't want to do anything that will change our lifestyle of boundless energy consumption.

But the inevitable lesson of the '70s is that lifestyles must change. Just ask any Californian whether their lifestyle is changing with rolling brownouts, huge electric rate increases, and $3-a-gallon gas. To pretend that every citizen can continue to use up energy without any change or sacrifice is to ignore the lessons of the past.

We cannot produce and consume our way out of this crisis. The key is for the nation's leadership to acknowledge that reality and promote a balanced energy plan of production, alternatives, and conservation. We know what works. America does not need to reinvent the wheel again.

Leon E. Panetta is director of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy. He was chief of staff to President Clinton.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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