Opinion: Bush Energy Policy - Fuels Rush In

By John Berger, Ph.D.

SAN FRANCISCO, California, June 6, 2001 (ENS) - Lobbyists for the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries can congratulate themselves on a job well done. The Bush administration's energy plan reads as if it were drafted by a second GOP - gas, oil and power interests.

Given reports of their entree with Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Policy Task Force, the energy interests got exactly what they wanted: relaxation of the Clean Air Act and other environmental regulations in order to fast track a profusion of new power plants, creation of 38,000 miles of new gas pipelines (12 times the width of America), expansion of oil refineries under reduced regulation and approval to drill for oil with impunity in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other protected public lands.

Bush

President George W. Bush (left) is congratulated by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, a Republican May 18, the day after the National Energy Policy was announced. (Photo courtesy the White House)
A central component of the plan - the creation of a new national power grid - is not a bad idea in principle. We do need new transmission capacity to bring the nation's huge treasure trove of clean wind, geothermal, biomass and solar electric energy to market. But if the transmission lines are situated primarily to facilitate the transport of power generated by coal and other fossil fuels, the nation will suffer a severe setback in its quest for clean, affordable energy.

Another key element of the plan - increasing natural gas imports and the use of federal powers of eminent domain to quash local opposition to the proposed new pipelines - hardly seems to square with the vaunted "energy independence" which the administration has emphasized.

Predictably, the plan shows little enthusiasm for renewable energy sources and no immediate relief from soaring prices for electricity, natural gas and gasoline.

Cheney

Vice President Dick Cheney headed the task force that wrote the National Energy Policy. (Photo courtesy the White House)
It also ignores the issue of national fuel economy standards, a program that has stagnated since 1975. Cheney, intellectual author of the plan unveiled last week, promised only that the administration will "look at" the standards issue.

Laudable by themselves are the plan's proposals for a small residential solar tax credit, tax credits for hybrid-electric vehicles and the extension of the Clinton administration's wind energy production tax incentives. But these will have little effect on national energy use for the near future.

The plan curtseys to conservation, a last minute insert, provoked no doubt by looking at public opinion polls. But the administration would further slash the already inadequate research and development budgets for clean energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydrogen and biomass power, although Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, bowing to a growing backlash, has said he would revisit these items.

But of much greater interest to the Bush administration is what Cheney calls "environmentally friendly clean coal" which some might consider an oxymoron, and a revival of the moribund nuclear power industry.

Under the plan, the Price-Anderson Act would be renewed, limiting the liability of nuclear power plant owners in the event of a catastrophic nuclear accident.

Catastrophic nuclear accidents don't seem to concern the vice president. He is on record as referring to the Three Mile Island core-melt accident, in which thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, as "the Three Mile Island flap."

If you listen carefully to the supposed "need" to build 1,300 new power plants - more than one a week for the next 20 years - you can actually hear old ghosts a-croaking.

In 1972, the Atomic Energy Commission, in similar fear-mongering fashion, declared that up to 1,500 large new nuclear power plants would be required to meet the nation's energy needs. The AEC's successor, the Energy Research and Development Administration, modified that ridiculous claim and more circumspectly projected that 725 reactors by the year 2000 would do nicely.

That was the conventional wisdom of the Nixon-Ford years. Never mind that giant cost overruns, expensive electricity, accident risks, waste problems and proliferation concerns stopped the sales of these white elephants in the mid-1970s, with America's civilian nuclear power inventory topping out at 103 plants. Yet this is the technology that Cheney now wants to resurrect, calling it a safe, clean and plentiful energy source.

Diablo

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant (Photo courtesy Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
That is exactly the line the nuclear industry has been pushing since the 1950s when it promised that "our friend the atom" would produce power "too cheap to meter." Tell that to the ratepayers of California who have had to spend billions bailing out "stranded" nuclear assets, such as PG&E's Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

In case anyone has forgotten, the cost of civilian nuclear power for taxpayers, consumers and private investors has been estimated at $492 billion (in 1990 dollars) between 1950 and 1990.

Perhaps that is why the vice president is so fond of it. Corporations like Cheney's Halliburton Co. were deeply involved in slopping up the nuclear gravy through Halliburton's subsidiaries, Ebasco Service Inc. and Brown & Root Inc.

Consider, by contrast, his faintly contemptuous remark, "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

Forget for a moment that not even the most committed environmentalist is suggesting that we rely entirely on conservation to meet future energy needs. Note instead that five national scientific laboratories have recently shown that straightforward energy efficiency programs could eliminate the need for more than 600 new power plants.

Aware of criticism, the Bush administration is now trying to make nice, with Bush absurdly declaring his policy as "a new kind of conservation, a 21st century conservation."

It's an interesting kind of "new" conservation that does not dare call upon restraints on conspicuous consumption, no matter how unnecessarily gas-guzzling the SUV or grandiose the monster home may be.

In a statement in May, the vice president actually said that he's not in favor of doing more with less energy, a pronouncement a freshman engineering student would find astounding.

Merrily burning as much nonrenewable fuel as possible, wringing the last drop of oil from protected public lands, trampling on local rights in the name of pipeline building and resurrecting the specter of nuclear power, with all its danger and all its deadly waste, hardly comports with the "compassionate conservatism" espoused by the Bush-Cheney election campaign.

Neither does it accord with the wishes of the American people.

The National Energy Policy is available online at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/energy/

{John Berger is an energy and environmental consultant. He has worked for the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, corporations such as Lockheed and Chevron, nonprofit groups, and governmental organizations, including the U.S. Congress. He is the author of "Charging Ahead - The Business of Renewable Energy and What it Means for America," and "Beating the Heat: Why and How We Must Combat Global Warming."}