TCS Daily

No Alternative

By Herbert Inhaber - January 15, 2002 12:00 AM

The nation's energy issues were put on the back burner after the events of Sept. 11. But since every American uses energy every day, those issues, unlike the al Qaeda network in Afghanistan, can't be buried forever.

The House passed its version of the President's energy proposal in 2001. Derided by Democrats as "dig, drill and burn," the Democrats in the Senate came up with their own proposal in December. It involves the usual mix of alternative energy subsidies and stricter regulations on how we use energy. The plan involves even more reliance on the "greendustries" - the vast array of professors and consultants who rely on government grants and payouts to churn out more and thicker reports. Unfortunately, these studies don't fill your gas tank or turn on a single light bulb.

While the Democrats' plan waxes eloquent on the joys of using less energy, it sidesteps the most contentious, if not the most important, issue in the Congressional energy debate - whether or not to drill in a few acres of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). This is the site of the largest remaining oil deposit in the United States. Republicans, in their House bill, advocated drilling in ANWR.

Some of the debate over ANWR is hyperbole. It is true that the oil there would reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But Saddam Hussein is not shaking in his boots over the prospect of ANWR opening up. As Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute and others have pointed out, we will be dependent on foreign oil for part of our consumption for decades to come, if not forever. But, they argue, if domestic oil is there, why not use it?

The absurdity of leaving energy resources in the ground while money flows to our great pals like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran instead of staying here has begun penetrating even the august halls of the New York Times. In a recent column, Thomas Friedman said that the three rules of energy policy should be conservation, renewables and - gasp -- energy production. Admission is half the battle, but Friedman could not get himself to pronounce the 'AN'-word.

Conservation is a popular solution to energy concerns, but even its most ardent proponents admit it will lead to paltry reductions in dependence on foreign sources of energy. And domestic oil production is a non-starter for Senate Democrats. So what about pursuing renewables such as wind or solar?

Democrats advocate having ten percent of the nation's electricity come from renewables by 2010. How the mighty have fallen! In Jimmy Carter's time, a quarter century ago, the national goal was to have 20% of all our energy (not merely electricity) delivered from renewables by 2020.

So now the Democrats have scaled back. Most of the goal is already accomplished, thanks to a Democrat from long ago - Franklin Roosevelt. FDR built most of the dams that now supply about 7% of our electricity. But the proportion has dropped since the 1930s and '40s, as increased national demand has been met with fossil fuels and nuclear power. So the figure that Democrats want to boost has been heading in what they think is the wrong direction for years.

As for making up the last two or three percent of electricity from renewables in the next eight years, the market has spoken pretty clearly on this issue. Renewables, except for a few highly specialized applications (such as supplying electricity to remote locations where the cost of new power lines would be too high) are likely decades away from mass application.

Even its proponents don't want to put their money where their mouth is. For example, some time back I appeared on a national TV show as part of a mini-debate on energy policy. One of the participants was Dan Reicher, a former Assistant Secretary of Energy for Renewables, known for decades as a strong proponent of solar and wind. Now, assistant secretaries make a fair salary, above $100,000. I thought that he might have saved a bit of this over the years. I asked him, "Given the fact that you have advocated renewables for years, and you made a reasonable salary at the Department of Energy, are you willing to invest either savings or your pension in a solar or wind company?"

He didn't answer the question. Instead he spouted some bureaucratic nonsense about getting a grant from the state of Maryland to insulate his attic. But his evasion raised another question: If the advocates of renewables won't invest their money in what they claim is a sure thing, should the American people be forced to do so?

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