US Energy Policy Weak, Shortsighted, Many Complain

Critics charge Bush with caving in to oil industry

ENERGY Secretary James Watkins and his staff listened to 448 witnesses, studied 200,000 pages of documents, and traveled to 48 states to produce the new National Energy Strategy. So they may have been disappointed by the bitter words thrown at the NES this week: ``Scandalous,'' says Susan Merrow, president of the Sierra Club.

``A lousy guide for our energy future,'' grumbles Rep. David Skaggs (D) of Colorado.

``A back-to-the-'50s energy policy,'' charges Rep. Barbara Boxer (D) of California.

``A cruel hoax,'' complains Jeanne Byrne, senior researcher for the Safe Energy Communication Council.

``A national energy tragedy,'' protests Howard Ris, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

With 527,000 American troops locked in an ``oil war'' in the Persian Gulf, lawmakers were looking to President Bush and Admiral Watkins for a forceful proposal to deal with long-term energy problems in the United States.

Instead, many members of Congress charge that Mr. Bush caved in to the oil industry with a policy of drill, drill, drill and waste, waste, waste.

In a nation which already gobbles petroleum at a far higher rate per capita than Germany or Japan, the NES is ``like giving whiskey to an alcoholic,'' says Ruth Caplan, executive director of Environmental Action. (Worldwatch outlines plan for eco-based economy. Story, page 4.)

Watkins, who spent more than 18 months crafting the NES, says much of that criticism comes from people on ``the fringes of knowledge'' about his plan.

Altogether it contains nearly 100 proposals, more than half of which the White House can put into action without Congress's approval. In sum, it would:

Boost long-term oil output by 3.4 million barrels a day by opening more areas to drilling, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska and certain areas of the outer continental shelf.

Speed construction of nuclear power plants by streamlining regulations.

Increase research spending on electric vehicle batteries, fuel cells, low heat rejection diesel engines, high-efficiency aircraft engines and fuselages.

Clear the way for faster construction of natural gas pipelines to make gas, which is plentiful, a larger and more competitive energy source.

Overhaul electric utility regulation to boost competition and foster use of renewable sources of electricity such as wind.

Yet even some industries that are supposed to benefit from NES, such as wind energy, are complaining. Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association, calls NES a ``disappointment'' and a ``giant step backward toward ... energy vulnerability.''

Critics were looking for several things. They wanted Washington to keep the oil industry's hands off pristine areas, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They wanted tougher standards for auto mileage. And some favored a stiff gasoline tax to discourage waste.

Energy officials offer answers for all these complaints.

The Arctic refuge, they note, could be the largest single untapped pool of oil remaining on the North American continent.

Prudhoe Bay, the biggest Alaskan reservoir of petroleum, currently supplies 2 million barrels a day - or about 25 percent of total US output. But of Prudhoe's estimated 11.2 billion barrels, some 7 billion has already been pumped. To keep the Alaska pipeline filled during the next 20 years, oil companies want to tap nearby ANWR.

ANWR is needed, officials say, as a transitional source of oil into the 21st century, when alternative fuels would be available.

Auto manufacturers' mileage standards, now 27.5 miles-per-gallon for new cars, should not be raised without more study, officials say. To go beyond today's levels might force manufacturers to design cars so small they'd be unsafe, says W. Henson Moore, deputy secretary of energy.

As for higher gasoline taxes, or an oil import fee, Mr. Moore notes that a 50-cent tax per gallon would lower the standard of living for a worker earning $10,000 a year by 5 percent.

Says Moore: ``The question is, How do you reduce [America's] vulnerability [to oil shortages], not how do you cause pain [for taxpayers]. And we've come up with a very effective program that over the next 30 years will do that much better than the pain-causers.''

The president has made it clear that he doesn't want to tell Americans that they have to live in tiny houses, drive cars that look like ``two-seater motorscooters,'' or pay more taxes, Moore says.

Even without such adjustments, Moore claims the NES will bring about much greater security for the US well into the 21st Century.

Nor do energy officials accept criticism that they are ignoring renewable sources of energy. Watkins notes that under President Bush, spending for renewable energy research has doubled, despite tight budgets.

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