Hooters & Polluters As I write this, Congress is locked in debate over an omnibus energy bill that purports to create outlines for a national energy policy for the 21st century.Two things need to be said about this measure: 1. America desperately needs a coherent, responsible energy policy. 2.This ain’t it. The energy bill is a hodgepodge of industry subsidies, tax incentives, and deregulation. Its 1,100 pages introduce more than $25 billion in new tax breaks and another $72 billion in new spending. The bill was written, then debated, largely in secret. Once details of its contents became public, observers from both the left and the right began criticizing the billions of dollars in “earmarks” (pork-barrel projects that have little to do with energy policy) that it contains. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) calls it the “no lobbyists left behind act.” Others have called it the “Hooters and Polluters” bill—a reference to one particularly egre-
gious piece of pork that would fund a new shopping center,including a Hooters restaurant, in Shreveport, La. Pork draws the ire of deficit hawks because of its wastefulness, but the main problem with such “earmarks” is that they entice lawmakers to support otherwise unworthy legislation. And this energy bill is unworthy legislation. The measure’s major thrust provides tax breaks and incentives aimed at increasing domestic energy production from oil, coal, and natural gas. This might have made sense if lawmakers were crafting an energy policy for the mid-20th century, but it makes little sense now, provides little guidance, and does little to prepare us for the impending hard choices we will be forced to face in the coming decades. Many petroleum experts predict that global oil production will peak within the next decade. Most of you reading this will outlive the age of oil. The energy bill fails to account for this and fails to prepare for a future that will be different from the past. Long-term thinking is not this Congress’ forte (for proof of that, reference the current, recordbreaking deficit). An energy bill that considered the needs of future generations would put more emphasis on the cheapest, most readily available current source of energy: conservation.
The good news—of a sort—is that we have become so wasteful in our energy use that conservation need not involve sacrifice. America wastes more energy in a given year than most countries use. Recovering that wasted energy through conservation and increased efficiency would mean substantial savings for individual Americans as well as for the country as a whole. Consider, for example, the fuel efficiency of our vast fleet of cars, trucks, and SUVs.The Model T Ford averaged 25 miles per gallon. Today, the average for Ford’s fleet of vehicles is 22 miles per gallon.That’s not progress.The Sierra Club estimates that, employing technologies that already exist, the fuel efficiency of America’s entire fleet could be improved to 40 miles per gallon within 10 years.That would save about 4 million barrels of oil every day—more than we’re currently importing from the Persian Gulf. The National Resources Defense Council recommends requiring that replacement tires be as fuel-efficient as the original tires on new vehicles, and it estimates that this would save about 5.4 billion barrels of oil over the next 50 years. When combined with overall fuel-efficiency improvements in automobiles, this would give the average
“Eventually the United States will have no choice but to turn to greater energy efficiency and renewable sources of power. Demand for fossil fuels surely will overrun supply sooner or later, as indeed it already has in the case of U.S. domestic oil drilling. Recognition also is growing that the air and land can no longer absorb unlimited quantities of waste from fossil fuel extraction and combustion. As that day draws nearer, policymakers will have no realistic alternative but to turn to power sources that today make up a viable but small part of America's energy picture. ... Precisely when they come to grips with that reality—this year, 10 years from now, or 20 years from now—will determine how smooth the transition will be for consumers and industry alike.” The National Resources Defense Council,“A Responsible Energy Policy for the 21st Century”
WHEN OMNIBUS BILLS ATTACK
driver more than $1,000 in savings a year at the pump. Similar energy savings could be found by adopting more efficient technologies and higher standards for heating, appliances, lighting, and electricity use. Such steps will entail short-term costs for consumers, but those costs would be more than made up for by the ensuing long-term savings. This is the exact opposite of the calculus driving the current energy bill, which promises short-term savings that will be exceeded vastly by the not-solong-term costs it will incur. Not least among those costs is increased pollution of our air and water. The energy bill does include some tax incentives and subsidies for conservation, efficiency, and the production of renewable energy, but these measures are overshadowed by its overwhelming emphasis on increased, unfettered production. This shortsighted approach imposes a heavy burden on future generations. Congress would do well to reject the
Courtesy of Northwestern University
A summer-camp counselor once told me, “If you can’t tie a good knot, tie a lot of them.” Congress seems to be following this advice in recent months as they have considered a series of massive, messy omnibus bills. These proposals, often sprawling for thousands of pages, do not lend themselves to careful, responsible lawmaking. Take, for example, the expansive and expensive legislation recently signed into law that began as an effort to add a prescription drug benefit to the federal Medicare insurance program. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne best described this bill when he wrote that Congress “went in to design a prescription drug benefit for seniors and came out with an aardvark.” The centerpiece of the bill—the drug benefit—does not take effect until 2006. And no one is entirely certain what else is in the bill. News coverage of the measure the day it was passed by the House of Representatives was based on sketchy summaries provided by legislative aides to members of the House leadership. It is possible that some of those aides had the opportunity to skim the entire bill before it was voted on. It is almost certain that their bosses did not. Giant omnibus bills—like the Medicare law and the current energy bill—do not allow lawmakers to vote responsibly. Members of Congress shouldn't be voting on bills that they haven’t had a chance to read. I’d like to see some member of Congress have the courage to refuse to go along with the charade that these unwieldy measures can be responsibly considered.
short-term thinking of this energy bill and embrace the task of crafting a national energy policy that our grandchildren can live with. ★
During World War II, energy conservation was seen as every American’s patriotic duty. Times have changed.
Former PRISM editor Fred Clark records his take on everything from faith and politics to Buffy the Vampire Slayer on his weblog at http://slacktivist. typepad. com