Congress Fiddles While Oil Burns

American drivers might as well get used to it. Rising world demand for oil has pushed gasoline prices to new highs, and they're likely to stay high as the era of easy-to-find oil appears nearly over.

What's Congress to do?

So far it hasn't done much. One thing it shouldn't do is try to bring pump prices down. Oil markets are sending a signal to the US that the time to conserve, move away from oil, and use alternative energies is now. Let's ride this horse in the direction it's going.

Three times in the past four years Congress has tried to pass a comprehensive energy bill, and failed. Oil prices have doubled since President Bush first proposed his version of such a bill. California suffered a massive energy crisis in 2000-01. The Northeast had a blackout in 2003, and the US became even more dependent on oil from the Middle East - the source of terrorist threats.

All that calls for a sweeping set of energy solutions, with compromises by a multitude of political interests. With the House having acted on its bill this week, and the Senate due to act in May, Mr. Bush might see a bill by August. The range of provisions in a final bill will probably not please everyone, and any one measure could easily defeat it, as in the past.

Bush himself is unhappy with the way House Republicans have larded up that measure with nearly $8 billion in tax breaks for oil companies. "With $55 [a barrel] oil we don't need incentives to oil and gas companies to explore," he rightly says. His proposal gives most of its $6.7 billion in tax breaks to energy efficiency and renewable energy. That's more like it.

The House also fails to demand high gas mileage for vehicles, or give incentives for fuel-electric hybrids. It lessens the burden too much on companies that put the dangerous, clean-air additive MBTE in gasoline.

Still, it does push worthwhile solutions. Daylight savings would be extended by two months, standards for electricity suppliers would be improved, gasoline refining would be made simpler, and the building of ports for imports of liquefied natural gas would be easier.

Voters will need to decide if the balance of measures in a final compromise between the House and Senate (and the president) is on the plus side to address the nation's many, varied energy issues. Bush will need to put as much effort into finding a necessary compromise as he is in trying to reform Social Security.

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