Energy bill not a bright idea

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy inspired Americans to pursue a goal that seemed beyond our reach: to land a man on the moon within a decade. Eight years later, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface, proving that America can succeed when we apply our expertise, innovation and can-do spirit to the challenges of our times.

Today, America confronts a new set of challenges. As American troops remain overseas in a region of the world that plays a central role in our energy security, the need to reduce our dependence on oil is obvious. There are affordable technologies available today that can break our addiction to oil and other polluting sources of energy that threaten our air and water. But instead of leading us boldly into the 21st century by promoting a safe, healthy and economic energy policy, the Bush administration and Senate leadership are pushing a plan fit for the 1800s, wasting taxpayer money for billions of dollars in subsidies that will entrench dirty and unsafe energy sources.

The Senate is currently debating an energy bill that originated two years ago when the Bush administration set up its Energy Task Force, led by Vice President Cheney. According to media accounts, the task force brought together Bush administration officials with executives from energy giants like Enron and oil companies in closed-door meetings. As a result, the Bush administration’s energy policy heavily favors these industries; indeed, some parts of the policy expressly mimic industry proposals.

That could explain why the Senate’s energy bill, based on those proposals, pays off energy companies at the expense of consumers and the environment. The Senate energy bill threatens our Western lands and coastlines with damaging oil and gas exploration, threatens consumers by exposing them to more energy market manipulation, and places our communities at risk by building new nuclear plants—but fails to provide Americans with higher fuel economy standards or more renewable energy.

Building new nuclear plants and opening up our natural treasures to drilling are not the answer. The Bush energy bill gives up to $30 billion to the nuclear industry to construct six new nuclear power plants. There is even a provision to use taxpayer money to buy electricity back from these reactors, even if the plants can’t compete in the marketplace. The nuclear provisions in the Bush energy plan sound more like 1953 than 2003. At a time when we still have not addressed the problem of what to do with the thousands of tons of radioactive waste stored at existing nuclear plants, it is irresponsible to add new nuclear plants and compound the radioactive waste problem we have right now. No new nuclear plants have been built in the United States since 1978 because Americans don’t want them in their communities, they are not cost-competitive, and they condemn our children to a legacy of radioactive waste that cannot be safely stored.

The natural legacy we pass on to our children will also be spoiled by plans to open the door to off-shore oil drilling that threatens America’s coasts and marine life. The energy bill contains a provision that directs the Department of the Interior to conduct an inventory of the natural gas and oil resources off America’s coasts in the Outer Continental Shelf, including many areas that have been under moratorium for 25 years. The exploration technologies that would be used for an initial oil inventory are invasive and disrupt marine habitats that have been protected for a generation. These technologies, like dart-core sampling and seismic surveying, have caused whales to beach themselves, fish populations to decline, and left seafloor habitat destroyed.

It is time for the United States to move forward with 21st-century energy technologies and not prolong our dependence on outdated, polluting sources of energy. The Bush energy plan puts the United States behind the technology curve while the rest of the world is moving forward with energy policies that put renewable energy and energy efficiency at the fore of a sustainable energy future.

The Bush energy bill fails to ensure that we will increase our use of clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. Creating more of our electricity with clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power will help clean up our air and diversify our energy mix with homegrown electricity. Increasing our reliance on clean, renewable energy sources will also bring economic development to rural areas and spur innovation. Studies done by the Department of Energy and the Union of Concerned Scientists show that we have the technology to produce 20 percent of our electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020 with no significant extra costs to consumers.

The Bush energy bill also fails to take meaningful action to improve fuel economy to save consumers money at the gas pump, curb global warming, and cut our dependence on oil. Passenger vehicles consume nearly 8 million barrels of oil per day. If all new vehicles averaged 40 miles per gallon, the United States could save over 3 million barrels of oil per day by 2020, more oil than we currently import from the Persian Gulf and could ever take out of the Arctic Refuge, combined. Automakers have the technology on the shelf today to make vehicles of all kinds—from passenger sedans, to SUVs, to pickup trucks—average 40 miles per gallon within 10 years.

There is a better way. America can reduce our dependence on oil. We can cut pollution. We can produce more of our electricity with clean, renewable energy like wind and solar power. And at the same time, we can protect our special places and ensure that corporations do their part to protect our health and safety.

But this bill does not get us there, and Senators Fitzgerald and Durbin ought to reject it. As those involved in sending a man to the moon could attest, that can-do attitude when combined with our technological innovation and know how could help America solve our energy problems within a generation.

Unfortunately, the current bill promises the moon—and hands us a balloon.

Colleen Sarna is a global warming conservation organizer for the Sierra Club of Chicago.

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