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Energy's Pals in High Places

September 15, 2003

The energy industry's multibillion-dollar wish list survives intact in the national energy act being hashed out in a congressional conference committee. The legislation remains the product of closed-door meetings two years ago between energy industry executives and Vice President Dick Cheney, a former oilman. Though the Senate in July managed to pass a slightly more moderate bill that Democrats had backed, bipartisan activity ended the moment Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) loaded their House-Senate conference committee with friends of the energy industry.

Domenici and Tauzin shamelessly link oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness to such things as keeping the lights on in New York, even though the blackout was a result of a neglected transmission system, not lack of power. They and their allies continue to push for subsidies to oil states, coal states and farm states that grow corn used to produce the gasoline additive ethanol. Conspicuously absent is any mention of tougher automobile fuel efficiency standards that would dramatically reduce energy consumption. Domenici also would give utilities loan guarantees to help them build nuclear plants, even though the industry hasn't figured out how to dispose of aging, outdated power reactors and their radioactive waste.

Congress, if it had any intestinal fortitude, would drop this giveaway package and do the regulatory tightening that would prevent more blackouts and increase energy independence. Start by granting real regulatory power to the North American Electric Reliability Council. The little-known organization now relies on voluntary compliance to keep electricity flowing on the overloaded system. The council is not much of a club in an industry where ever-larger power producers, transmission line operators and energy traders constantly battle for a competitive edge. Congress also must create regional organizations to deal with the increasingly interstate nature of electric transmission.

Then Congress should invite testimony from real energy experts not beholden to the energy industry and develop a legislative package that helps the nation.

There are plenty of people with solid ideas, starting with members of the Energy Future Coalition and the National Commission on Energy Policy. These nonprofit organizations draw their members from across the political spectrum, and their proposals -- including incentives to build fuel-efficient cars and innovative ways to strengthen the electric grid -- deserve legislative respect even though they aren't accompanied by obscenely large campaign contributions.

The current energy plan is largely a pile of favors to powerful supporters of the Bush administration. The nation deserves better.

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