Chicken Little and George W. Bush are wrong. The sky is not falling and, the current manufactured hysteria notwithstanding, there is no energy crisis. Not at least if you live outside of California. Even there, the crisis is not due to a lack of new power plants, as Thomas Higgins explains (see page 8). Elsewhere what is being opportunistically, even cynically, hyped as an energy crisis should be recognized as a real but hardly cataclysmic energy problem, a problem that begins with the notoriously contradictory American consumer (and voter) who regards cheap gas and electricity as a birthright. We want to power our (ever bigger) cars and warm and cool our (ever bigger) dwellings, but we don’t want to pay the price-not at the gas pump, not in our utility and heating bills, not on the price tags of foodstuffs and other things transported long distances, and not with power plants, pipelines, transmission lines, and refineries in our backyards. We prefer to shift that cost to faraway places, to diffuse it into the less visible burdens of air pollution and environmental damage, or, better yet, to kick it forward to future generations.

To call the current tightening of energy supplies and consequent jump in prices a problem rather than a crisis is not to deny there are victims. Small farmers, independent truckers, and other small businesses, lacking the muscle to pass on higher costs, get squeezed. As always, people with low or fixed incomes are hit especially hard. If the Bush-Cheney energy plan were to focus attention on such victims, fine. If the plan were calculated to make the nation think hard about choices and costs, all the better. And there is nothing wrong with periodically and dispassionately reviewing matters that either liberals or conservatives have come to treat as permanently settled, including the potential of nuclear power, "clean" coal, off-shore drilling, and alternative or renewable energy sources.

Unfortunately, the Bush plan is an unbalanced rush to meet short- and long-term energy needs almost entirely by increasing the supply of fossil fuels and building new power plants. This emphasis on supply is economically and environmentally unsound, and it almost entirely ignores whole dimensions of energy policy like the painful boom-and-bust cycles and the impact on global warming.

What it proposes undermines thirty years of federal policy and thinking on energy efficiency and its benefits. Energy Task Force chief Dick Cheney’s now notorious declaration that "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy" ignited an open war at the Department of Energy (DOE). Economists from the administration-favored Energy Information Administration, a DOE division that has traditionally promoted fossil fuels and downplayed efficiency, were openly challenged by scientists working in five of the department’s national labs. Their studies conclude that energy efficiency by itself could avert the need for 610 of the 1,300 new power plants called for in the Bush-Cheney proposal. Their findings suggest the crucial importance of government-mandated efficiency standards.

The scientists’ report, "Scenarios for a Clean Energy Future," published last November, argues that easy-to-achieve efficiency standards save enormous amounts of energy resources. Changes in building standards could spare the need for 100 new plants; more efficient appliances (water heaters, air conditioners, washing machines, and clothes dryers) could postpone the need for 180 more. If Americans seriously considered where the 1,300 Bush-Cheney power plants—one a week for twenty years—are going to be built, including the nuclear power plant down the road, perhaps they would pay more for a washer that would make up that cost in lower electric bills.

The possibility of overall energy savings in government-mandated fuel efficiency is equally dramatic. If American cars and light trucks (including SUVs) got just three more miles to the gallon, the United States would save 1 million barrels of oil a day out of the roughly 10 million it imports. Contrast that million barrels with the six hundred thousand barrels a day that Bush-Cheney projects the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge would produce in 2010.

The plan’s neglect of energy efficiency reveals a distinct bias toward extraction (should we be surprised?) from two former oil executives now in charge of energy policy. It’s a bias wholly lacking in merit, economically or environmentally. Government investments in DOE efficiency projects have more than paid for themselves: By one estimate, the $12 billion DOE has invested in such research and development since 1978 has saved consumers $100 billion in energy costs. There are relatively clean, renewable energies (wind, solar, and fuel cell) that merit more government investment than the plan offers.

Burned by the swift reaction to Cheney’s revealing dismissal of conservation as mere "personal virtue," the administration is now spinning its energy plan as "green" and conservation-conscious. To what extent does Bush manage to deceive himself as the first step toward deceiving the public? It is probably pointless to guess at the mixture of ignorance and guile in this. The truth is that the proposed plan’s conservation components and environmental concerns are mostly minor, vague, and voluntary. Anyone believing otherwise probably also believes that the Bush tax cut is a big break for the little guy.

Furthermore, not a few economists and other voices in the business community fear that the Bush-Cheney emphasis on adding supply, in the absence of equal attention to checking demand, will do little to temper the boom-and-bust cycles that have plagued American energy production and consumption.

This is a case where slow is good. Congress should subject the Bush-Cheney energy plan (developed largely in secret) to a detailed public scrutiny, conducting hearings on it, piece by piece. Democrats and less drill-happy Republicans should develop their own alternatives. They need not moralize about conservation and efficiency as "personal virtue," although they also need not be as curiously skittish of that notion as this professedly pious administration. They need only show Americans how individual choices shape the common good and how incentives and constraints have to be put into place so that we actually pay for what we want, rather than pushing the cost into our shared environment, someone else’s backyard, or our children’s and grandchildren’s future.

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Published in the 2001-06-01 issue: View Contents
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