An Energy Policy with Tunnel Vision

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Gandalf Grey

May 7, 2001, 3:32:00 PM5/7/01
The New York Times

May 6, 2001
A Blinkered Energy Strategy

President Bush has said that his forthcoming energy package will be a
balanced mix of recommendations aimed at increasing supply and, through
improved energy efficiency, lowering demand. But it will be surprising if
things actually turn out that way. The main architect of the energy plan is
Vice President Dick Cheney, who made clear in a speech last weekend that the
plan would focus heavily on increasing supplies of fossil fuels. With the
certitude that he brings to most matters, Mr. Cheney contemptuously
dismissed those who would look elsewhere to satisfy the country's energy
needs. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue," he said, "but it is
not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

As Mr. Cheney well knows, there are few people who actually believe that
conservation alone can satisfy the country's energy needs. The country's
electrical transmission lines need upgrading, there are bottlenecks in the
system that distributes natural gas, and there are undoubtedly deposits of
natural gas that can be extracted with minimal environmental damage from
federal lands that are already open for exploration. But conservation -
saving energy by using it more efficiently - can also make a huge
difference, and for Mr. Cheney to imply otherwise simply reinforces the
suspicion that his strategy is little more than a clever effort to sell the
country on the need for more drilling.

Take first the fuel supply. Mr. Cheney is determined to drill for oil on the
coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which could yield as
much as 600,000 barrels of economically recoverable oil per day by 2010. By
contrast, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy estimates
that gradually raising the fuel efficiency of light trucks and cars to 35
miles per gallon would save 1.5 million barrels a day in 2010 and 4.5
million barrels a day by 2020 - up to seven times what the refuge could
produce. Moreover, these would be permanent energy savings that would not
require invading an ecological treasure.

Improved energy efficiency would also diminish the need for new power
plants. In the same speech, Mr. Cheney asserted that energy demands are
rising so fast that the country will need to build 1,300 new generating
plants in the next 20 years. This assertion was based on a report of
questionable integrity from the Energy Information Administration, an arm of
the Energy Department that has traditionally promoted conventional energy
sources like coal and oil and downplayed the potential of efficiency and
renewable energy. It is also the same report that Mr. Bush used to justify
his decision to withdraw from the Kyoto accords on global warming.

Meanwhile, the administration has conveniently ignored another Energy
Department study published late last year - "Scenarios for a Clean Energy
Future," compiled by scientists at some of the Energy Department's national
laboratories. The study argued that efficiency measures alone could obviate
the need for building 610 of the 1,300 plants. For example, constructing
buildings that were more energy efficient would eliminate the need for 100
plants, while rules approved near the end of the Clinton administration
mandating more efficient appliances - air-conditioners, clothes dryers and
water heaters - would save an additional 180 plants.

Increased energy efficiency could even rescue the president from the folly
of punching holes in the Arctic, drilling off the coast of Florida and
invading the national forests along the Rocky Mountain Front. But the key
Bush officials do not see the potential in conservation. In its budget, the
administration actually proposed a 30 percent cut in funding for a
government-auto industry partnership that is seeking to develop a new
generation of energy- efficient vehicles. That partnership, an Al Gore
favorite that Detroit also loves, is helping to speed development of hybrid
cars that get up to 60 miles per gallon. The White House has also threatened
to weaken the new standards for central air-conditioners, while the Energy
Department proposes to cut in half its spending on alternative fuel sources
like wind, solar energy and fuel cells.

The budget holds out the hope that these research funds will be restored in
2004 - but only with money earned from oil leases in the Arctic refuge
should Congress allow drilling there. There can be no plainer illustration
of the bias toward extraction that defines what we know so far about Mr.
Cheney's energy strategy.

"If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so
long as I'm the dictator." George W. Bush, Televised Newsconference
December 18, 2000

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