Energy Crisis? Don't Have a Cow about Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary

Article excerpt

When U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary was discovered running up extraordinary travel costs - apparently failing to take full advantage of the efficiencies instituted by the president's reorganization of the White House travel office - she responded proudly that her far-flung international itinerary had benefited American business to the tune of $19.7 billion. In fact, that was her conservative estimate, as she had already testified before Congress that some $27.7 billion in contracts had been secured by U.S. firms as per her marketing efforts. That seemed like a hot return on a few measly millions of dollars in airfare and hotel charges.

But economic benefits are often difficult to estimate with pinpoint accuracy. Hence, in a revised Energy Department scenario, agency officials whittled the actual benefit number down to $2 billion. It was important, said the department spokeswoman, to separate out the "finalized or bottom-line results" from "total potential value." By whatever measure, Vice President Gore chimed in that Mrs. O'Leary had created "thousands of jobs" with her exhaustive schedule.

But there are some who believe that the better way to create thousands of real jobs would be to abolish the Department of Energy, an agency that evades public responsibility by floating below the voter's radar screen. Its fairy tale existence began in the "energy crisis" of 1973-74, when a temporary Federal Energy Administration was created to deal with the notorious oil shortage. Those gas lines actually began in Spring 1973 - prior to the Arab oil embargo - and were the direct product of the wage-and-price-control scheme (a Nixonian fiasco curiously escaping Oliver Stone's cinematic genius). This made the FEA the perfect governmental solution: Hire federal bureaucrats to fill in holes which other federal bureaucrats dig.

When the oil-price controls were ended, circa 1981, the shortages disappeared - a coincidence with implications so deeply conspiratorial that energy policy may yet ignite Mr. Stone's well-developed sense of fancy. Now, a decade and a half later, we have seen the hurly-burly forces of the unregulated marketplace deliver us gasoline for about $1.10 a gallon. In 1970 dollars, and accounting for the buried tax increases, this reduces to about a nickel, give or take. It's far below what consumers paid for gas in 1960, 1970 - or at anytime in our history before we had an energy "crisis."

So: For what do we need a Department of Energy? The agency was slated for abolition by President Reagan in 1981 and the Republican Congress in 1995, but today it thrives with an annual budget of $15. …