The energy bazaar is open again in the US. Congress seems determined to try once more to pass comprehensive energy legislation.
President George W. Bush, in his state-of-the-union address, chided lawmakers for debating the subject for 4 years. Then he demonstrated his own lack of seriousness by singling out for personal endorsement a mandate for fuel ethanol.
It's comforting to think that a new version of a old bargain might be in the works: an ethanol mandate in return for farm-state support of oil and gas leasing of federal acreage now off-limits.
But a more likely motive came into view soon after the state-of-the-union speech when the president proposed a budget that attempts to trim farm subsidies.
The presidential plug at least puts fuel ethanol in its proper political and economic sphere: agriculture.
Mandating a market for ethanol as a fuel additive would benefit farmers and grain distillers, not energy consumers. It wouldn't extend energy supply by nearly as much as grain growers and distillers claim. It's farm relief, not energy policy.
Something similar can be said for partial product-liability relief for makers of the gasoline oxygenate methyl tertiary butyl ether. The relief should happen. But the subject is tort reform, not energy policy.
Ethanol and MTBE liability are major issues that stalk any attempt to pass energy legislation. Both can kill a bill. In US politics, farm states and trial lawyers have to be kept happy.
The pressing energy needs of the US, however, have to do with energy supply. And supply issues—intertwined as they are with environmental questions and the ambitions of alternative-fuel developers—are complicated enough.
Imagine how different the debate over energy would be if Congress addressed ethanol and MTBE liability in contexts other than comprehensive energy legislation. Then farmers, refiners, and trial lawyers could concentrate on the supply and price of fuel and feedstock.
It won't happen, of course. In Washington, DC, energy policy means wildly different things to wildly disparate constituencies, all wildly passionate in their opinions. It always diffracts public attention.
So the energy-supply challenge just keeps growing.
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