Legislating energy a tough job, but Congress must do it
Republican opposition has stalled energy legislation in the Senate.
CHANCES that Congress will adopt legislation necessary to move the nation away from reliance on imported oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions have dimmed as short-sighted lawmakers have been unable to set aside their narrow interests.
After a week of debate, Republicans in the Senate choked off further advancement, balking at a proposal to require electric companies to generate a modest 15 percent of power from renewable sources by 2020.
Already 23 states have similar laws on the books, nine with standards that match or surpass that percentage in a shorter time period. California will require 20 percent by 2010, while Oregon and Minnesota set a 25 percent by 2025 standard.
In 2004, Hawaii passed legislation to require that by 2015, 15 percent of electricity production come from renewables, 20 percent by 2020. Though progress to meet those goals has been slow, the law has pushed the effort forward.
Whether a nationwide mandate would supersede states' measures is moot at this point. Republican senators, led by New Mexico's Pete Domenici and heeding the wishes of power company lobbyists, have rejected the proposal, claiming that consumers would pay more for lighting their homes and running dishwashers and that it would cost jobs.
What they aren't considering is the fact that worldwide demand for oil and political instability will continue to drive up fossil fuel prices and that economic repercussions eventually will cost jobs anyway. Moreover, renewable energy production could shift dead-end employment to industries that will thrive.
Senators opposed to the standard contend that states in the South and Midwest don't have the wealth of renewable resources that others like California and Hawaii do. Unless the sun doesn't shine, plants don't grow and water doesn't flow in those states, renewables such as solar, biomass and hydro-power are certainly available.
Meanwhile, to appease coal-state senators and powerful industry groups, a provision has been added to the bill that would give $10 billion in direct government loans to plants that produce diesel fuel from coal. It is an expensive, inefficient proposition at best, so much so that in the House, a supporting bill would provide price-protection loans for coal-based liquid fuels in the unlikely event that the cost of oil drops too low to make it marginally profitable.
Though the industry has sought to rename coal as a "clean" or alternative fuel, it is neither. Few fuels are as destructive start to finish -- from blasting entire hillsides of the rock and dumping residuals into waterways or sending workers to extract it from mines, to burning it and releasing tons of toxic gases into the atmosphere.
Coal's abundance makes it a tempting resource. However, subsidies should be limited to research and development of genuinely clean methods for its use.
The energy legislation would be the first to emerge without the oil-friendly imprint of the Bush-Cheney administration. Among its problematic provisions are an imbalanced policy that has doubled food and feed costs as corn is diverted to ethanol production, increased vehicle-fuel efficiency markers that have lawmakers from auto industry states nervous as well as complex royalty fees and environmental issues for oil and gas exploration on federal lands and along coastlines.
Nonetheless, the public is increasingly troubled about the uncertainty of the nation's energy future. To achieve meaningful solutions, Congress will have to look beyond the next election cycle and turn off the easy path that will lead to nowhere.