Manifest Energy Destiny

If Americans learn a common lesson from Sept. 11, the Enron scandal, and US rejection of the Kyoto treaty on global warming, it is that the problem of energy can't be left to Washington.

The federal government helped build and now maintains a highly centralized, fossil-fuel-dependent system of energy that is too vulnerable to terrorism, corporate corruption, and bureaucratic inflexibility.

Here's why:

• Terrorists can easily hit pipelines, big power plants, electricity grids, and fuel ships needed for the present system of energy.

• Energy traders like Enron, that thrive off the half-regulated, half-market status of big energy systems, spend millions of dollars currying favor with government officials.

• Consumers who want to use less-polluting or more-efficient energy methods often face big obstacles or unusual costs in doing so.

All three of those events from last year should have altered the debate over energy. But they haven't much, at least in Washington, despite calls to tie national security to energy policy.

President Bush's energy plan, along with his anti-Kyoto proposal to deal with global warming, mainly reinforces a dependency on Big Oil and Big Coal. And the Senate, which plans to pass an energy bill in coming weeks, remains under the influence of energy or oil-consuming businesses recycling consumer dollars into the senators' election campaigns.

Both Mr. Bush and the Democrats offer some incentives - usually tax breaks - for building energy systems based on conservation or renewable and less-polluting fuels.

But the financial incentives aren't enough to create a system less vulnerable to terrorism and corruption, and that emits less carbon dioxide. Americans need to look to themselves or local governments and organizations for new energy directions. And environmental groups that lobby Washington might better serve their interests in local campaigns.

An opinion piece in today's Monitor records an uptick in civic behavior by Americans after Sept. 11. The Enron affair and Washington's anti-Kyoto mood can also add to a groundswell of action by Americans to create energy systems that are more terrorist-proof and earth-friendly.

If everyone, for instance, now drove vehicles that used three miles a gallon less per mile, it would reduce oil use by the amount now imported from Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 terrorist hijackers on Sept. 11.

A patriotism focused on energy doesn't start in Washington, but with individuals finding a new common destiny in how they use energy.

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