In a speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in April, President George W. Bush told a story about talking to troops in Texas who were concerned about the rising cost of gasoline. Bush explained that he had no "magic wand" to reduce gas prices, but he hinted that his energy plan, which he wants Congress to approve ASAP, would provide some relief. If only that were true. In fact, experts say that Bush’s energy policy will do nothing to bring down the prices at the pump, in spite of its heavy emphasis on drilling for oil and gas.
We’ve seen this before from the president on energy issues. In early 2001, he insinuated that environmental regulations were somehow responsible for the California energy crisis. Seattle writer Bruce Barcott has documented in The New York Times how Bush used that notion to help justify gutting rules that require coal-fired power plants to comply with the Clean Air Act — despite the fact that Bush’s old friends at Enron, not environmental regulations, were behind the so-called "crisis."
What is the president up to now? In his April talk, Bush laid out his priorities: (1) encouraging energy efficiency and renewable energy research; (2) expanding domestic energy production in environmentally sensitive ways; and (3) developing alternative sources of energy. Sounds good. Sounds great, in fact. The problem is that when you look at the details of his energy plan, you come away with a very different picture.
Bush’s plan would pour $2 billion into developing cleaner technology for burning coal, which he calls "our most abundant energy source." It would pour billions more into nuclear power, which Bush says "produces without pollution." The "alternatives" he speaks of are corn-based ethanol and hydrogen fuel cells. Truly clean and abundant energy sources such as wind and solar get short shrift.
And so we find ourselves again in the position of looking elsewhere for leadership. Happily, as Laura Paskus writes in this issue’s cover story, that leadership is emerging in the West, from state governments, rural electric co-ops and everyday people. The West is, after all, the cradle — and the grave — for much of the nation’s energy industry. This region produces much of the coal and natural gas and uranium, for example, and nuclear power plants back East have been trying for years to send us their radioactive waste.
In a sense, President Bush is doing us all a favor. It makes sense that the people are the ones leading this charge. Westerners and Easterners alike, we’re the ones who breathe the smog from coal-fired power plants, who see firsthand the impacts of mining and drilling, and who feel the effects of global warming. We’re also the ones who make the energy business boom, by plugging in our computers and TVs and air conditioners, and buying bigger and bigger SUVs.
But if we can lead — in the right direction — Congress just might follow, and create a national energy policy that we can all believe in.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.