Bush Energy Proposal Reflects Reagan Policy

By Wald, Matthwe L. | THE JOURNAL RECORD, February 19, 1991 | Go to article overview

Bush Energy Proposal Reflects Reagan Policy


Wald, Matthwe L., THE JOURNAL RECORD


Since the election of Ronald Reagan, the nation has approached energy policy in the same ambivalent way it has approached sex education: some people think it is indispensable; others think it is none of the government's business.

A silent majority appears to grudgingly agree that something is needed. But in Washington the attitude often seems to be, Do we really have to talk about it in public?

One of the most surprising things about the war in the Persian Gulf, and the third oil crisis in less than 20 years, is how little it has done to shake this complacency.

As Brooks B. Yeager, a lobbyist for the National Audubon Society, put it, oil policy and the oilfield war are ``eerily disengaged from each other.''

Last week the Bush administration's draft energy strategy leaked out, perhaps as a trial balloon, and experts in the field found it more remarkable for what it does not say than for what it does.

The plan could still change before it goes to Congress, which will probably happen this week.

But in its preliminary form the draft evokes the Reagan years. The emphasis is not on conservation but on the supply side, with calls for pumping oil in areas previously off limits for environmental reasons and for deregulating pipeline operators and electricity producers.

Electricity, in fact, is heavily stressed, with a continued federal commitment to nuclear power.

But electric companies do not use much oil, and besides, said Mary Kenkel, a spokeswoman for the Edison Electric Institute, the trade association of investor-owned utilities, they use the thick, heavy stuff that no one else wants.

``That oil, even if it's displaced, is not going to power your automobile,'' she said.

Bush's plan would make it easier to build natural gas pipelines, but at present, gas is in surplus.

He would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, but that, say the experts, would only delay the decline of American oil production, not stop it.

Energy policy, to the extent that it exists at all, is still driven by what Peter C. Beutel, an oil analyst at Pegasus Econometric Group, in Hoboken, N.J., calls a Republican mantra: ``The Market Is Our Policy.''

But Adam Smith's invisible hand has increased dependence on imports by choking domestic production.

In the late 1980s domestic production declined sharply as an Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries price war made Texas and Oklahoma wells uneconomical. At the same time, demand kept rising. Imports made up 31 percent of demand in 1985; now they make up nearly half.

A year ago the Department of Energy seemed poised to propose steps to modernize everything in America that uses energy, to do the same work with less.

Adm. James D. Watkins, the energy secretary, said last summer that the one area in which consensus existed was for higher efficiency.

But the draft of the Bush plan includes very few of those.

In a way, Bush has replaced energy policy with foreign policy; the problem of expensive oil went away when the bombers went in.

Some people favor a more direct approach to oil, however. U.S. Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, complained that an energy policy should not have to rely on ``fragile coalitions and the prosecution of a war.''

The war could conceivably push Congress into demanding more from the administration. Congress has 80 energy bills waiting, some paralleling Bush's plan.

Congress may also try a new windfall-profits tax, although it seems unlikely any oil company would earn enough to pay it in 1991.

Higher on Congress' agenda is raising the efficiency standards for automobiles, which were introduced after the first oil shock in 1973 but are now at a plateau of 27.5 miles per gallon.

A proposal by U. …

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