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Bill Conserves Mostly Pork

October 21, 2003

The national energy bill getting its finishing touches in a House-Senate conference is a pork-barrel exercise in subsidy politics. There's something big in it for every corner of the power industry -- absent conservation -- and something for the district of every lawmaker whose vote is needed to get the bill passed. Republican leaders set the cost of the bill's tax incentives at $16 billion, but the real cost could mushroom to more than $60 billion when product liability exemptions, proposed natural-gas price supports and other indirect costs are calculated.

Here's what the measure isn't: a forward-looking policy to encourage thoughtful development of new domestic energy sources and promote conservation, the fastest way to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

If the current bill survives the Senate-House conference committee, Congress should reject it or the White House should veto it. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said as much last month in a letter to Congress that set $8 billion in tax credits as the upper limit. Abraham wrote: "Maintaining fiscal discipline remains crucial to returning the budget to balance."

What Americans would get from the bill unfortunately depends on where they live. Comprehensive energy legislation is always a pork target because legislators all want something for their backyards. In this bill, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) would get an $800-million coal gasification plant mainly intended as a source of jobs. Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) is counting on a $1-billion nuclear reactor project -- no matter that the nuclear industry hasn't figured out how to safely dismantle its existing plants. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is leading his corn-growing state's charge for increased use of the costly fuel additive ethanol -- a mandate for which California motorists would pay dearly.

The committee isn't forgetting close friends in the energy industry. The bill would reinstate a multimillion-dollar tax break for companies that sink natural gas wells in coal beds -- even though many of the wells already make a profit. And it would shield from lawsuits the producers of the fuel additive MBTE, which is polluting groundwater in California and a few other states.

The money-grubbing has gotten so extreme that the bill is in danger of stalling as House and Senate Republicans bicker over who gets the most pork. The best thing to do is to drop the sorry business and start over next year. Congress should encourage real debate on a national energy policy that dares to promote conservation and renewable power, as well as cleaner power from traditional sources.

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