FALSE CHOICES IN US ENERGY POLICY-MAKING

Somebody from Washington, DC, has been making sense about US energy policy-making-as opposed to policy-recently. Of all people, it's the secretary of Energy.

Somebody from Washington, DC, has been making sense about US energy policy-making-as opposed to policy-recently. Of all people, it's the secretary of Energy.

In two speeches this month, Energy Sec. Spencer Abraham called for improvement in the public-policy debate over energy and attention to supply and US infrastructure.

His perspective far outshines that of Congress, where too much debate over energy amounts to pretentious defense of Bambi against the bulldozers and of helpless consumers against the robber barons.

Abraham complained at a National Press Club audience on July 25 about a "false choice" implicit in assessments of public opinion about energy: "In essence, Americans have been asked to pick between massive drilling in the protected wilderness versus painless conservation coupled with a crackdown on energy companies that are charging high prices (OGJ Online, July 25, 2001)."

The Energy secretary said energy proposals should be tested against a different standard: by whether and how they help the US meet long-term energy needs.

In what might have been a deliberate clinker, Abraham denied that support for oil and gas leasing of part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge represents the centerpiece of administration energy policy.

The secretary's denial notwithstanding, President George W. Bush initially put ANWR leasing at the center of energy-policy salesmanship-and on a collision course with the clear intentions of a politically divided Congress. Abraham's comment thus might be a signal that the administration plans to pull its position of greatest vulnerability away from the front lines of the energy policy battle.

If so, good. Congress should of course approve leasing of the ANWR coastal plain. It just won't do so now. An obstinacy contest over ANWR leasing will keep anything else constructive from happening on energy.

And there is plenty more to accomplish. In a July 19 speech in San Francisco, Abraham pointed to inadequacy of the US energy infrastructure and wondered whether the rest of the country will learn from California's energy crisis (OGJ Online, July 20, 2001).

Both subjects-infrastructure and the political system's ability to learn from experience-need attention.

"The question is what we all learn from California's experiences," Abraham said in San Francisco. "If the only conclusion is that Herculean conservation efforts, a mild summer, and price mitigation can avert excessive blackouts, it would be most unfortunate.

"If, however, we draw the conclusion that California and America need an affordable, plentiful supply of energy or face serious consequences, it will make a huge difference."

Abraham took the analysis a useful and too-infrequent step further by tying energy to the modern economy's dependence on reliable energy supply.

And he regretted the "pervasive and paralyzing myth" that energy problems haven't reached crisis intensity and that they can be solved by conservation alone.

Various segments of the oil and gas industry have various and sometimes conflicting problems with pieces of the administration's energy policy.

But the industry and policy-making in general will benefit to the extent Abraham succeeds in his campaign to improve America's fundamental approach to energy issues.

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