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Jewish World Review May 10, 2001 / 17 Iyar 5761

William Schneider

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Consumer Reports

Bush v. Carter? -- PRODUCTION versus conservation? Sounds like "back to the future.'' The debate over energy policy is one we've had before, during the energy crisis of the 1970s. But this time, the debate is taking a peculiar shape. It looks like a debate between the Bush Administration and the Carter Administration.

In 1979, President Carter told the country, "The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our nation. These are facts, and we simply must face them.'' Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney called energy " a storm cloud forming over the economy,'' adding, "America's reliance on energy, and fossil fuels in particular, has lately taken on an urgency not felt since the late 1970s.''

President Carter's solution? "I am proposing a bold conservation program to involve every state, county and city, and every American citizen, in our energy battle. . . . I ask Congress to give me authority for mandatory conservation and for standby gasoline rationing.''

Republicans like Ronald Reagan had contempt for Carter's approach. The answer to a failure of government was more government? You could hear that same contempt in Cheney's remarks 22 years later: "The aim here is efficiency, not austerity. We all remember the energy crisis of the 1970s when people in positions of responsibility complained that Americans just used too much energy.''

Actually, Carter's complaint went further than that. In what became known as his "malaise'' speech of July 16, 1979, President Carter claimed that Americans had lost confidence in themselves and in their government. He told the country, "Our people are losing faith, not only in government itself, but in their ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy.''

Cheney's response? "Our strategy will recognize that the present crisis does not represent a failing of the American people.'' Cheney called it a failing of government: "The crisis we face is largely the result of short-sighted domestic policies -- or as in recent years, no policy at all.''

Cheney's message was, get real. Americans are not going to change their way of life. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue,'' the vice president argued, "but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.''

Really? Scientists at five national laboratories disagree. Their report to the Energy Department, based on three years of study, contends that new technology and aggressive steps to encourage conservation could reduce the growth in energy demand by 20 to 47 percent.

Cheney contended that the country would require at least 1300 new power plants over the next twenty years, or more than one new plant per week. The scientists claim that conservation could reduce that number to between 700 and 1000. Cheney chose to rely on Energy Department economists rather than scientists. In the economists' view, the efficency gains projected by the scientists may not be economically feasible.

Example: In its final days, the Clinton Administration mandated new efficiency standards for washing machines, aimed at raising their energy efficency by 35 percent over six years. But the energy efficient machines are so costly that consumers are unlikely to realize a savings without using the machines more than once a day for 14 years. The higher efficiency standards will have to be forced onto consumers by government mandate.

Cheney's alternative: more energy production, including coal ("still the most plentiful source of affordable energy in this country'') and nuclear energy ("one form of technology that causes zero emissions of greenhouse gases'').

There are certainly similarities between the energy problem now and in the 1970s. The U.S. has become even more dependent on foreign oil. And Americans have returned to their wasteful habits. Notice how many mothers are ferrying their kids around the suburbs in what look like armored personnel carriers.

But the differences are even more striking. The 1970s saw real shortages of supply, related to OPEC and two big oil shocks in the Middle East. Now nobody's talking about running out of oil. The problem is a shortage of refining capacity.

What we learned in the 1970s is that bureaucratic rationing does not work very well in this country, except in times of war. We ration things like gasoline and electricity and health care by price. If there's a shortage, the price goes up. But voters don't like it when prices go up. They want government to do something. O.K., Cheney said. We'll stimulate more production.

That creates a political problem for the Bush Administration. Bush and Cheney come out of the energy industry. A lot of people heard Cheney's remarks as a boondoggle for energy producers.

The ABC News/Washington Post poll asked people, "Which is more important to you, protecting the environment or finding new sources of oil and natural gas?'' A majority of Americans said protecting the environment was more important. Then the poll asked, "Which do you think is more important to President Bush?'' The answer was finding new sources of energy, 76 to 16 percent.

Americans are suspicious of President Bush's priorities. Which is why the President had to backtrack from Cheney's remarks and insist that his energy program would have "a balanced approach'' in which conservation would play an important role. He even called for turning thermostats in government buildings up in the summer and down in the winter. Which, for a moment, made him sound more like President Carter than like his own Vice President.

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© 2001, William Schneider