THE energy policy unveiled recently by President Bush places energy production on a fast track and relegates conservation, once again, to the slow lane. Some members of Congress responded to the president's disappointing initiative by introducing a flurry of conservation-oriented bills to counter executive inertia. Meanwhile, as the president continues to pursue an energy strategy of business as usual and Congress is scurrying for an acceptable alternative, some states have taken the lead in developing tough-minded energy strategies.
Since last November, the nation's governors sought ways to influence the emerging national energy policy. They wrote to Energy Secretary James Watkins: "We believe the principal goal of a national energy strategy should be to provide secure and affordable energy supplies. In ranking the options for meeting that goal, conservation must be a primary concern."
But the word "conservation" has been largely stricken from the president's final product.
Rather than waiting for Washington to lead the way, state governments recognize this energy-conservation leadership vacuum and are preparing to fill it. This sequence - the states leading and Washington reluctantly taking up the rear - has been the pattern of the last decade on major domestic issues.
In the 1960s, the order was reversed. During the civil rights era, a determined president and Congress prodded, pushed, and threatened the states into accepting laws many did not want. Today, it is the voices of governors and legislators which Washington must begin to hear if it is to be responsive to grass-roots concerns about energy use.
A number of states have begun to chart tough conservation strategies, including Vermont. The likely result will be that a serious, conservation-oriented national energy policy will emerge in the 1990s in the same way that education reform, environmental protection, and child care became national issues: via the states.
One reason for conservation's demise is the fear that conservation measures, while desirable, are not politically acceptable to the American public.
State leaders, more distanced from the energy-producing interests and more closely allied with the economic and environmental concerns of their constituents, have a better understanding of the pain the public will bear in return for less costly and more environmentally benign energy.
In Vermont, we developed a comprehensive energy plan for the year 2000 and have begun to model the results. We've concluded that a comprehensive strategy would, by 2000, result in drastic changes including a 12 percent reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions, a 17 percent reduction in acid-rain precursors such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, and a 29 percent per capita reduction in the use of nonrenewable energy sources, including oil.
The economic gains are significant. Our analysis showed that residential energy expenditures would fall from 6 percent of personal income in 1990 to 4.6 percent by 2000.
As an added boon, employment opportunities would increase by 1.2 percent, largely through the creation of jobs in the nonrenewable energy sector.
If the status quo is maintained, energy consumption in Vermont is projected to increase by 46 percent between 1990 and 2010. The goal of the Vermont energy plan is to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent by 2000.
The Vermont energy plan contains nothing startlingly new or radical. The emphasis is on developing renewable resources and increasing energy efficiency.
Each element of such a policy is subject to the question: "What difference would it make?" Collectively, the difference becomes more clear. When these recommendations are carried out in a comprehensive, integrated, long-term manner, significant shifts in energy usage, cost savings, and environmental benefits may be measured.
Even in a rural state like Vermont, where public transportation is expensive and scarce, a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit and a fleet of cars that get 45 miles per gallon make an impact. Switching from oil to renewable sources such as natural gas and wood add up to striking results. Oil use alone, by 2000, would be reduced by 23 percent from the "business as usual" projection.
The larger question of energy security, which helped fuel the Persian Gulf war, is also on Americans' minds to a degree that is vastly underestimated by the public-pulse takers in Washington.
As Washington proceeds on the course of business as usual, it is the state governments that will continue to be laboratories for change and the testing ground for political courage. Once the citizens embrace state conservation initiatives and experience the rewards of lower prices and a healthier environment, Washington may echo and reinforce state efforts.