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A Skewed Energy Policy

June 02, 2002

The president agrees to buy up oil leases offshore from brother Jeb's Florida but shows no sign of doing the same thing with leases off the California coast that date back to the 1960s. The oil lease buyback was quite a show of brotherly love in this election year--but it's only a sideshow in a schizophrenic federal energy policy. If only Washington would listen to California.

Last year, seeking to counter Vice President Dick Cheney's denigration of conservation as a way to save energy, President Bush made a show of adding conservation rhetoric to his energy plan. But it turns out to be mostly rhetoric. In late May, the administration scaled back the new energy-efficiency standards for air conditioners set late in the Clinton administration. The administration already had rejected any increase in auto mileage standards, the best way to stretch U.S. petroleum supplies.

Bush says he seeks balance between energy and the environment. But there's little balance in the Interior Department's plan to allow the drilling of 51,000 coal-bed methane gas wells in northeastern Wyoming. The wells will bring to the surface an estimated 4.4 million acre-feet of water that is so salty it cannot be used for farming, ranching or in the home. That's enough water--if it were any good--to supply Los Angeles for seven years. The Environmental Protection Agency called the resulting water pollution and runoff unacceptable. Interior officials said, in effect, hey, let's talk it over and find a way around this little water problem.

There was little balance to the zeal with which the administration sought to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Fortunately, the U.S. Senate said no.

The nation could benefit from a lot more weight on the conservation side of the equation. Look at what the state of California did to combat the 2000-01 electric power crisis. Bush aides claimed California brought the crisis on itself by not building enough power plants. There was some truth to this, but the other side of the story was how much the state was able to save through conservation achieved without discomfort or hardship.

The state Energy Commission says that by June 2001, users had cut demand by 5,570 megawatts, about one-seventh the total power use on a warm summer day in California. The savings was the equivalent of building five giant power plants costing about $2.5 billion. More remarkable, this was in addition to more than 8,000 megawatts conserved over previous years.

Conservation programs proved relatively inexpensive in terms of the amount of electricity they saved. Much of the effort cost nothing at all--just switching off lights and running the washing machine after 7 p.m. Considerable conservation just keeps on working at no additional cost, like the Energizer bunny.

But we can't have more efficient air conditioners because the manufacturers say it will cost too much? How do we balance that--drill more gas wells in Wyoming?

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