EARLY ENERGY POLICY PROPOSALS AVOID THE BIG MISTAKES

Each congressional side has fired its first volley over US energy policy, and the potential damage seems to fall within tolerable boundaries. In fact, some good might even result.

Each congressional side has fired its first volley over US energy policy, and the potential damage seems to fall within tolerable boundaries. In fact, some good might even result.

Sens. Frank Murkowski (R-Alas.) and John Breaux (D-La.) started things off with an omnibus energy bill loaded with measures good for energy interests, private and public.

Democrats followed with two bills noteworthy for the mistakes they manage to avoid.

The Murkowski-Breaux bill is taken as the Republican offering despite the Louisiana senator's party affiliation. On energy, he acts like a Republican.

And the Republican measure comprehensively addresses energy supply, which is good. It includes many measures that are long overdue, such as tax improvements for US oil and gas producers and greater access to federal land.

It also calls for tax relief for marginal oil and gas production when prices fall below specified levels. Most producing states have taken action like this to preserve important resources, businesses, and taxable incomes. It's past time for the federal government to do likewise.

The Democrats, to their credit, follow suit, although their price thresholds are lower. Those differences should be easy to split, which means that federal tax relief for marginal producers is likely to happen. Bravo.

Other differences will be parsed out and thrashed out in the coming weeks. And new bills might appear.

Some early quibbles from a quick first look will be addressed here.

The Murkowski-Breaux bill calibrates a constructive menu of energy measures to reduction of import dependency. That's a dated, possibly dangerous, and unnecessary gauge. It will generate a series of artificial bull's-eyes for political pot-shooting. And unwittingly supports the agenda of the antioil crowd; after all, one way to lower import dependency is to use less oil.

The Democratic bills contain isolated central-planning clinkers. There's a temporary price cap on electricity transmission in the West, for example. And there's a requirement that the Departments of Energy and Transportation somehow limit growth in petroleum use by light vehicles. Good grief.

Neither side very vigorously addresses the subject of electricity deregulation and what role the federal government should play in it. That has become touchy since California turned its fatally incomplete version of deregulation into martial law.

Most encouraging, however, is what the bills don't do.

For one thing, they don't qualify every mention of energy supply with boilerplate about the environment. An energy policy proposal that emerged during the Clinton administration choked itself silly with environmental incantation. Restraint in this area is a good sign.

More importantly, the bills don't mention price controls. Who says political institutions can't learn from their mistakes?

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