By Lewis Tagliaferre
As the U.S. Senate returns from its Easter recess, opponents are lining up on both sides of this perennial argument in the continuing debate of S.517, authored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). It’s deja vu all over again, just like the Carter years. Debate is colored by the recent events in the Middle East as it was then. As Sec. of State, Colin Powell flits among Arab countries seeking support for cessation of hostilities, one of their leaders, and maybe others, has targeted U.S. imports of foreign oil needed to meet nearly 60% of our usage. Saddam Hussein of Iraq is drumming up support among fellow Arab leaders for joining him in boycotting oil shipments to the U.S. for thirty days and maybe longer. That loss, plus a strike against the largest oil producer in Venezuela, has reduced our imports by 30 percent, according to Sen. Frank Murkowski, (R-AK). Gasoline prices have jumped in anticipation of pending shortages. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) showed that the price of oil can be related to gross national product in inverse proportion since 1972. When oil goes up, GNP goes down. If you are old enough to recall those long lines at gasoline stations and the attendant 18% interest rates and inflation of the Carter years, you will no doubt be troubled. If not, you should be.
Both sides of the Senate aisle seem to agree that we should reduce our dependence on foreign oil from unfriendly countries. OPEC nations own more than two thirds of the world’s oil reserves. But some Senators think we should do it by emphasizing more domestic exploration in environmentally sensitive areas, like Alaska, and others think we should do it by emphasizing conservation and more renewable resources. The latter tried to increase auto fleet mileage performance to 35 mpg. The SUV drivers and truck owners and their suppliers successfully fought off that challenge, even though the National Academy of Sciences estimated a 42% increase in fuel economy can be reached without reducing horsepower or sacrificing size.
Any attempt at crafting a national energy policy should consider our respective resources including coal, oil, gas, nuclear, and renewables such as wind, geothermal, solar, and hydrogen for fuel cells, plus conservation of course. Each of these resources comes with benefits and burdens. If a free economy prevailed without the Clean Air Act, we would be concentrating coal on power generation since we have abundant supplies at cheap prices. However, gas is emerging as the dominant fuel for new generation plants because it is available and cleaner burning. Nuclear is burdened with issues of waste storage and security concerns. Congress is on a fast track to approve the use of a nuclear storage facility under Yucca mountain in Nevada, against the objections of many who point to the security and safety risks of interstate transportation and handling methods. Renewables lag because they are not economically competitive nor available nationally in equal capacity, and the hydrogen economy lacks a national program like the Kennedy mandate for sending men to the moon in the 1960s. And only a blackout crisis, as in California, seems to precipitate serious voluntary conservation.
Watching the Senators debate energy on C-Span, one can see the influence of special interest groups that lurk behind the scenes. No one wants to be harmed and everyone wants to keep on keeping on. Depending on what helps their voters the most, each Senator speaks for the emphasis that bodes well for re-election. That is the American way. Whatever comes out of the Senate debate, the result will have to be compromised in a Conference Committee with the House version passed last summer that favored stimulating increased production of fossil fuels.
Some observers think that a Conference stalemate could stifle agreement that might take months for negotiation. The White House energy team under V.P. Dick Cheney has all but forfeited its congressional leadership for handling of its policy recommendations by its secretive deliberations that favored energy producers over conservationists. After 15 days of debate there are still 50 of 200 amendments awaiting action. And, Republicans vow to fillibuster any bill that doesn’t authorize oil drilling in the Alaska wildlife preserve. Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) said, “The Senate must not squander this unique opportunity to improve America’s energy independence, economic security, and national security.” Wanna bet?