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A Faint 'Green' Glow

January 27, 2002

Of all the steps that government has taken in the name of national security, none reduce dependence on oil from the Middle East, which is arguably the nation's biggest economic weakness.

Vice President Dick Cheney and his allies in Congress who say the key solution is drilling in Alaska's national wildlife refuge miss the point. The refuge would not reach peak production for two decades, and the United States needs to begin curbing its need for imported oil now. President Bush deserves credit for moving away from his vice president's Neanderthal position.

Were Saudi Arabia, which contains nearly half of the world's oil reserves, to shut off its spigots tomorrow, it would wreak havoc in the United States, which guzzles one-quarter of the world's oil but contains only 3% of its known reserves.

The best permanent route to energy independence is tighter fuel efficiency standards for cars and tax incentives to encourage corporate energy efficiency and development of energy alternatives to oil. The energy plan that Cheney unveiled last spring instead focused like an Enron lobbyist on supply--on relaxing environmental regulations to allow more domestic oil drilling and higher coal emissions.

Bush took a few solid steps away from Cheney in a speech in West Virginia last week. ''We've got to promote technologies that will enable people to have the same lifestyle without burning as much energy," he said. "We've got to figure out ways for our cars to burn less fuel ... we've got to conserve energy.''

Some administration officials are urging Bush to go beyond green rhetoric in his State of the Union speech Tuesday and champion two concrete reforms: requiring energy companies to develop an emissions trading system and creating a research program to develop cars fueled by hydrogen. It's a start, though some environmentalists are rightly concerned that the administration might use the distant vision of hydrogen fuel cells or emissions trading to avoid bold short-term action.

If Bush is serious, he will have to also spend some political capital on auto makers. A cowed Congress hasn't raised auto fuel efficiency standards in 20 years. Bush can provide lawmakers some courage by supporting a proposal by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). Kerry would require that U.S. cars and light trucks average 40 miles per gallon by 2012 and 55 miles per gallon by 2020. The new-car average today, not counting SUVs and other light trucks, is 28 mpg.

Bush's newfound emphasis on energy conservation may be partly an attempt to help the GOP win environmental votes in this fall's election. A less cynical interpretation may also be true. Bush is not only a former oilman from Midland, Texas, but also the son of the first President Bush, who helped pioneer tax-based emissions trading systems when he signed the Clean Air Act in 1990. He's got the genes, and he may be grasping the need.

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