NPR logo Bill Lacks Visionary Approach to Energy Woes

Bill Lacks Visionary Approach to Energy Woes

Ask average Americans what concerns them most right now and you will not hear them talk about judicial appointments or the need for reform at the United Nations. They may not even say Iraq or the solvency of Social Security.

Instead, the list of compelling concerns often starts with jobs, the state of the economy or the high price of gasoline.

So, we can expect Congress this summer to focus on ways to boost the economy, create jobs and lower energy costs. What better way for Congress to raise its own low standing in the polls than by responding to the priorities of the public? Right?

Well, yes and no.

The Senate this week will take up that weighty package of program and policy changes known as the energy bill. It's been a work in progress for nearly a decade, always falling just a bit short of the compromise that could win approval in both House and Senate.

More than anything else Congress might do this year, tackling the nation's energy problem would improve the future of the economy, the promise of good jobs. Unfortunately, however, the bill before Congress does not truly tackle the problem. And if it did, it might well make Congress less popular — not more.

If enacted, the pending legislation would move billions of dollars around in the economy. Its incentives for exploration and production should mean some new jobs and probably an incremental improvement in domestic energy production — primarily in fossil fuels. Over time, this might at least reduce the rate of increase in American energy demand.

But it would leave the basic problem essentially intact.

What is the basic energy problem? Reduced to a sentence, it is the disturbing disparity between the amount of energy we feel we must have and the amount we can expect to produce or import at a manageable price.

There are two ways to deal with this problem, we can rein in our demand and we can find new, reliable and plentiful sources of cheaper energy. Obviously, we need to do both. Unfortunately, the thrust of the energy bill before Congress does relatively little to ensure the achievement of either objective.

First, it requires relatively little of the consumer. It is presumed that the consumer will respond to market forces, but that is left to the workings of the market itself.

Second, while some public and private resources are pointed in new directions, the bill provides a wealth of new incentives for energy companies to continue doing what they do now — only more so.

As a result, the bill is unlikely to provoke opposition from any of the critical elements in the sector's equation: consumers, energy producers and distributors, labor unions or others with a stake in the industry.

The fundamental problem of supply and demand calls for visionary thinking and a radically new attitude on a national basis. But the current bill is written primarily by officeholders serving constituents and constituencies whose perspective is that of the energy producing states and industries. These are their sources of votes and campaign contributions. They talk the language of production and supply because that is their native language.

Moreover, there is simply no constituency for sacrifice. The template for all such discussions in Congress and in national politics is the era of Jimmy Carter's presidency, when we first used the phrase "energy crisis."

Carter was elected in 1976 with the country still reeling from the first "oil shock" (the 1973 Arab oil embargo triggered by that year's Arab-Israeli war). In office, Carter was confronted by big spikes in the cost of electricity and natural gas. Then the Iranian revolt against the shah brought a second oil shock, long lines at the pump and the highest gasoline prices ever paid in the U.S. (adjusted for inflation).

Carter actually moved to deregulate oil and gas prices in his term and began a production-friendly era that later helped bring prices down. But what sticks in the memory is Carter's effort to dampen demand. If you were around then you remember the man from Plains donning a sweater on TV and urging his fellow Americans to turn down the thermostat, drive less and use fewer electric gadgets.

America proved reluctant to enlist in Carter's "moral equivalent of war." Instead, the electorate sent a big class of Republicans to Congress in 1978 (including one Dick Cheney) and an even bigger one in 1980, the year Carter lost the White House to Ronald Reagan.

Since then, presidents have been careful to steer clear of too much vision and sacrifice, couching their energy speeches in terms of national independence and economic growth. Congress has done the same.

And so the basic problem continues, and grows.