POWER POLICY: The Energy War within Us: Most Americans Say They Favor Conservation. but We Also Love SUVs and Huge Houses. Can Washington Cope with the Contradiction?

Article excerpt

If nothing else, George W. Bush's energy program reminds us of one of the great paradoxes of American public opinion. By word, we are a nation of ardent environmentalists. A CBS poll last week found that Americans favor increased energy conservation over higher production by a huge 60 percent to 26 percent margin. But by deed, we crave energy-draining comforts--from sport utility vehicles to bigger homes. Since 1970 the typical new home has increased 47 percent in size; meanwhile, 84 percent now have central air conditioning, up from 34 percent. And, of course, we holler if energy costs rise. Witness the present furor over gasoline prices (more than $2 in some cities) and California's electricity rates.

The trouble--the mammoth contradiction--is that higher prices have been conservation's most effective sledgehammer. They forced us to behave as we say we should. Naturally, we tend to forget this. Writing last week in The Washington Post, former president Jimmy Carter argued that federal conservation measures (fuel-economy standards for cars and similar requirements for appliances) had suppressed America's energy appetite. Well, up to a point. Remarkably, average energy consumption per person is now about the same as in 1973. New refrigerators are 70 percent more efficient than then; since 1974 new cars' fuel efficiency has doubled, from 14 to 28 miles per gallon.

But only up to a point. Even with these savings, overall energy use is up about 30 percent: a reflection of population growth. And what Carter neglected to say is that the biggest energy savings occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when skyrocketing prices, gasoline lines and recession caused Americans to become energy-conscious. High energy prices shut down the most inefficient factories. Drivers turned--temporarily--to smaller cars. In 1983 the country actually used less energy than in 1973. Once oil prices collapsed in 1986, energy demand resumed a steady upward march. Drivers began switching to SUVs and pickups, which are covered by much laxer fuel standards than cars.

What unites Bush and his critics is an unwillingness to confront the contradiction. To Bush's critics, conservation is an almost painless process that spares us harder choices. For Bush, ample supplies are the answer. Some simple arithmetic suggests neither may be right. Focus on a single number: 337 million. That's the Census Bureau's estimate of the population in 2025, which is about 53 million more people and almost 20 percent greater than today. It means more homes, cars, schools, office buildings and computers: more of everything that gulps energy. Just to accommodate population growth--forget about higher per-person energy use for, say, broadband Internet--would require a 20 percent increase in energy supplies.

Bush would encourage added supplies in many ways. He would permit oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)--an area estimated to have between 5.7 billion and 16 billion barrels of reserves that, if tapped, might satisfy about 5 percent of today's daily oil use. He would also create a federal right of eminent domain for power-transmission lines, so electricity could move more easily from surplus to scarcity areas. And he would streamline some complex regulations--mostly from the Clean Air Act--that the oil and electric industries contend have inhibited expansion of refineries and power plants. After last year's run-up in Midwest gasoline prices, disgruntled members of Congress asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate for a possible conspiracy among oil companies. But the FTC report essentially corroborated the industry's claims: high prices reflected tight refining capacity and the practical problems of making so many gasoline blends to comply with clean-air requirements. …