WASHINGTON, D.C. - Surely, there was a time when the much-heralded proposals issued in these parts actually meant something.


One must not romanticize the past, and in the immortal words of racing columnist Col. Stingo, "memory grows furtive."


Furtive or not, there is a memory of receiving, one chilly November afternoon in 1973, the much-heralded energy proposals which would be proclaimed that evening by Richard M. Nixon. His is not a name which reflexively inspires the response "intellectual integrity" on the free-association test. But those of us who got the White House briefings that day knew exactly what he proposed to do.


Nixon was part of the Republican Party. Surely that was a time, furtive though memory grow, when the Republican Party made specific proposals. Those were the days when it was dominated by rich guys who not only attended elite Eastern universities but absorbed some of what was taught there. Yes, they were deluded in thinking that their success was based on innate superiority, but the delusion helped make them responsible.


OK, he was not always responsible or respectable. Still, it was Nixon, the Republican, who signed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, put an automatic cost-of-living adjustment into Social Security and negotiated the anti-ballistic missile treaty with the Soviet Union, the bedrock of the world's nuclear arms control mechanism. And he came up with a concrete energy plan that included a gas-saving 55-mile-an-hour speed limit, a call to tap the national petroleum reserve and proposed legislation that would have authorized the administration to ration energy. Now that was a real energy crisis.


In mid-May, people who call themselves Republicans issued a much-heralded energy plan. It has 168 pages and 105 recommendations, most of them as solid as - well, natural gas would be the appropriate analogue.


Not that this report says nothing. It says we have to drill for more gas and oil, and if that messes up some land, so be it. It says we have to refine more oil, and if that makes the air dirtier, so be it. It says we have to build more nuclear power plants, maybe even breeder nuclear reactors, even if they produce weapons-grade plutonium. It says that if you buy a hybrid gas-electric car you should get a tax credit, though your tax credit pales beside the subsidies the Federal Treasury (that's you) would bestow on energy producers.


But as to exactly where this gas and oil should be pumped, the report is all but silent, specifying only the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where Congress probably won't permit pumping. Nor are there any specifics about just how much dirtier the air should get, where the nuclear waste will be dumped, or whether that tax credit will enhance the mileage-per-gallon of the auto fleet in the aggregate. As to even a rough estimate of the dollar value of the energy subsidies, fuhgedaboudit.


Vagueness, though, may be this document's strong point. It asserts that the United States faces an energy crisis. It does not. The report further cites "estimates (that) indicate that over the next 20 years U.S. oil consumption will increase by 33 percent," without identifying who might have estimated such an absurdity.


But why be surprised? Remember the first rule of political analysis: Context is everything. This report comes from the same people who claim they are enacting a $1.35 trillion tax cut, though it will reduce revenues at least twice that much, and will no doubt require diminishing the Social Security and Medicare funds. These are also the folks who propose an anti-missile defense that cannot do what they advertise it will do - protect the country from missiles launched by "rogue states" - but might one day create the believable illusion of first-strike capability, the better to rule the world. In the process they would dismantle that mechanism Nixon put in place a generation ago.


Between the lines

Does this mean that the administration is not to be taken seriously? Not at all; only that it is not to be taken literally, or seen as employing anything resembling precision of language.


Nowhere, for instance, does the report specifically say that there ought to be natural gas production along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana's Lewis and Clark National Forest. Instead, it says, for instance, that "where opportunities exist," the Interior secretary should review and modify restrictions that impede oil and gas on public lands, "consistent with law, good environmental practice and balanced use of other resources."


Huh?


But, again, remember context. During the campaign, Vice President Dick Cheney proposed drilling along the Rocky Mountain Front, even though the Forest Service had ruled that there would be no mineral exploration there for 10 to 15 years. The petroleum industry, which unsuccessfully challenged that rule in court, has never stopped complaining about it. And according to Jim Angell, the lawyer who helped defend the rule, "if you look at the maps (in the report) and see how they circled where oil and gas are, it’s clear that they’re talking about the Rocky Mountain Front."


Also the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming, as well as some areas of New Mexico. These seem to be the public lands the administration wants to open up to more gas and oil exploration. Not that the administration plan specifies them. It specifies nothing except that it wants to loosen some restrictions. Interpretation is required.


Congressional approval is not. Most of the changes the administration proposes the administration may adopt. This does not necessarily mean it may adopt them easily. Reversing that no-exploration rule on the Rocky Mountain Front, for instance, might require an elaborate public process, politically dangerous if most of the people think the Front ought to be left as it is. They do.


Still, there is a limit to the burdens that can be borne by Montana environmentalists, even with the support of their colleagues around here. You would think there would be another entity to take up the battle, especially an entity that also had a vested interest in, just for example, Social Security and Medicare, nuclear disarmament and fiscal prudence.


Memory grows furtive. But didn't there used to be such a thing as the Democratic Party?


Jon Margolis watches Washington, D.C., from his energy-efficient house in Barton, Vermont.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jon Margolis