Cheney’s energy policy will be tough to love

  • Geneva Overholser / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, May 5, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Dick Cheney didn’t put it this way — that would be too impolitic — but he clearly thinks conservation is for sissies.

The veep made that evident Monday in Toronto, where he gave a preview of what his energy task force will report next month. Industry leaders will be pleased with the verdict: We need more of everything, and we’ll go after it — hard.

"As a country, we have demanded more and more energy," he said, which is undeniably true. But, as a country, we demand a lot of things, and we don’t expect the government to provide them all.

Cheney is determined to. He wants 1,300 to 1,900 new power plants — more than one a week — over the next 20 years. He wants 38,000 miles of new pipeline for natural gas — more than enough to connect Maine to California a dozen times. He wants more nuclear-powered electric plants. And he bids us cease our fretting over coal — "the most plentiful source of affordable energy in the country."

"Bless his heart," said the president of the West Virginia Coal Association. "We’ve got people in Washington talking to us now." And, from the Nuclear Energy Institute: It’s "heartening to see that the administration is not only recognizing but publicly acknowledging the positive role that nuclear energy plays."

It’s difficult not to think now about how many millions Cheney reaped as chairman of Halliburton, the oil-services firm. Or how many billions the energy industry has riding on the Cheney task-force decisions. Or how much cash the Bush campaign received from energy companies.

But Cheney insists it’s our interests as red-blooded Americans that he’s protecting. He vows we’ll hear no silliness about cutting back. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis — all by itself — for a sound comprehensive energy policy." And, "To speak exclusively of conservation is to duck the tough issues." As if anyone in this land of outsized energy habits has ever spoken "exclusively" of conservation.

Toronto, unaccustomed to such sentiments, was unsettled. The headline in The Toronto Star read, "Cheney View Horrifies ‘Greens,’ " and in The Toronto Sun, "Cheney Backs Old King Coal; Conservation Dismissed." A Canada Sierra Club official said: "It’s the most dismaying thing I’ve ever heard and I’ve been doing this for 25 years." If you have a leaky bathtub, "Do you turn the faucet on even more full or do you try to patch all the holes? Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush have opted to turn on the faucet."

They have, indeed. While Cheney called conservation "an important part of the total effort," the administration’s actions make clear that we needn’t fear any more of those wimpy, self-denying, cardigan-wearing Jimmy Carter days. Cheney forswore any measure based on the notion that Americans now "live too well" or that people should "do more with less."

And indeed, the administration has been busily reversing regulations on the burning of coal and the building of pipelines and refineries. It barely took office before abandoning a treaty on global warming and rejecting controls on carbon dioxide emissions. And its budget proposal deeply cut research and development on renewable energy sources, conservation and fuel efficiency.

Cheney warned that, without his proposals, we might all face energy troubles like California’s present ones. But those troubles seem relevant mostly for the cover they give this administration to push its industry-friendly policies. The recommendations themselves fly in the face of the California experience.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein notes, for example, that 30 percent of the state’s electricity is produced through renewable resources. Yet the Bush budget deleted a tax incentive for developing renewable energy, and Cheney dismissed renewables as "years down the road."

Drastic measures to expand energy supplies are needed, Cheney says, because growth in demand alarmingly outstrips growth in supply. But far be it for him to recommend "austerity." Not so much as a grumble about our national yen for monster cars or mega-mansions will he entertain.

Do we really "live less well" today than in 1988, when the average car went 26 miles on a gallon of gas? Today’s average is 24, so apparently — in Cheney’s terms — we do. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy says a modest increase in fuel efficiency could provide more resources than drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But it wouldn’t fit Cheney’s swaggering energy policy. "Our strategy will recognize that the present crisis does not represent a failing of the American people," said Cheney. And indeed it does not. It represents a failing of their leaders, and a shameless sellout. Happily it’s so awful that the people may quickly cry foul — and not just in Toronto.

Geneva Overholser can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or overholserg@washpost.com.

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