Toxic George

Arsenic in the water. Carbon dioxide in the air. Salmonella in the hamburger. Roads in the national parks. Oil drilling on the public lands. But no treaty on global warming and no protection for endangered species. Toxic George, the pollution president, is on a roll, and as the political cliché goes, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Stand by for implementation of the official Bush energy policy, created by committee behind closed doors in Washington and just made public.

The Bush energy task force, which began meeting in secret last January to hatch its plans, was chaired by the administration's Mr. Petroleum, Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney, it will be recalled, formerly headed the Halliburton Company of Dallas, an oil-services firm that paid him a tidy going-away salary of $36 million last year, lest he forget his former associates.

The dozen members of Cheney's cabinet-level energy team included the following stalwart friends of the Earth: Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans, another former oilman; Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, a fan of nuclear power; Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, a James Watt protégé who opposed the Clean Air Act; and EPA director Christine Todd Whitman, who as New Jersey's governor cut the state's environmental protection budget by a third. Both Norton and Whitman support a "business-friendly" approach to pollution enforcement incorporating voluntary compliance with federal regulations on the part of industry.

Where the Cheney task force ultimately came out on energy policy was hardly a surprise. The first hints appeared in the administration's tentative 2002 federal budget, which drastically reduced spending on alternative energy research; requested money for government studies of wind, solar, and other renewables, for instance, was cut by 50% from present levels. In addition, the White House proposed a 27% reduction in the program aimed at producing more fuel-efficient vehicles. On the other hand, the Bush budget called for a hefty 83% increase in research into coal-burning technology -- to make the nation's dirtiest energy source slightly less objectionable.

If there were any lingering doubts about how an administration of, by, and for oilmen would formulate energy policy, Dick Cheney himself dispelled them in late April at the annual meeting of the Associated Press in Toronto, Canada. Giving a figurative back of the hand to Jimmy Carter, the vice president rejected conservation measures in favor of production "efficiency" -- of unleashing Big Oil and Big Coal. There would be no sweaters and lowered thermostats under Toxic George, but there would be an abundance of new mines, refineries, fuel-burning power plants, and pipelines, as well as increased exploration for oil, coal, and natural gas. Wind, solar, hydro, and other "green" sources of energy would be out; traditional fossil fuels and nuclear power would be in. And it would all be done by the free market; regulators and price controllers need not apply. That vision, amended to include a few feel-good references to energy alternatives and controlled use, is the essence of the adopted report Cheney delivered to the White House.

Some specifics, courtesy of the vice president from Halliburton: Government subsidies (read: corporate welfare), eased regulations, and streamlined permit procedures will allow private industry to build 1,300 to 1,900 electric-power plants over the next two decades, lay 38,000 miles of natural gas pipeline, boost coal production as the nation's primary source of electrical generation, and expand domestic drilling for oil and gas -- including forays into Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the Gulf of Mexico, and the Rocky Mountains. As for reviving the discredited nuclear industry, why not? It is, said the veep, one of "the cleanest methods of power generation that we know."

Just think: a neighborhood power plant across the street from the neighborhood Wal-Mart. This nightmare scenario is not a dream; you're not hallucinating. This really is how Toxic George and his merry band plan to do energy policy.

The primary beneficiaries have been moved to simple eloquence. "Bless his heart," said the president of the West Virginia Coal Association, whose industry poured record amounts of money into GOP coffers last fall, when apprised of Cheney's recommendations. Others were less sanguine. This from the environmentalist director of the Toronto Energy Alliance: "I'd hate to think we'll have to throw up a huge iron curtain to keep American smog and acid rain on the American side."

The Bush task force's expressed preference for dirty and finite fossil fuels to address future energy needs is indeed mind-boggling. Its members are correct in recognizing an approaching energy crisis, but are totally wrong in their prescription. Take oil, for instance. Over half of our supply comes from overseas, a situation that must be reversed, say the Bushites, through development of what domestic reserves remain -- ergo more exploration and drilling.

The inconvenient truth is that America has been dependent on petroleum imports for years, and we're not apt to find sufficient domestic supplies to appreciably alter that reality. Most of the available oil in the continental US has already been discovered; it makes little sense to tear up the landscape and further degrade our deteriorating environment looking for nonexistent gushers. Based on seismic tests and present levels of consumption, the oft-mentioned exploitation of ANWR would provide us, for example, with less than a year's worth of oil.

Coal and natural gas are another matter. There appears to be a plentiful supply of both, but their use raises other problems. Coal, which fuels over half of our electrical generating plants (not petroleum, which runs just 2%, a fact overlooked by the president when he suggested oil drilling in Alaska to solve California's power crisis) can only be obtained by savaging the topography and can only be used by despoiling the air. Dangerous natural gas, alternatively, is both explosive and expensive; its retail price has risen 70% over the past year. Clearly, there are better solutions.

Nuclear power, a Cheney favorite, which is "clean" (if you don't count the reactor waste) but carries the ever-present risk of another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, is not one of them. The best answer lies in renewable or alternative energy sources, the so-called green-power option, and in that old standby, conservation. Because of the uncertainties of climate and weather, renewables will never be a complete answer, but if a significant portion of the absurd $1.35 trillion Bush tax cut for the well-to-do went instead into alternative energy research and development, there's no reason why green power couldn't eventually provide a large minority of our energy needs.

Conservation could do a lot of the rest. Serious fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles would be a good starting place, followed by some sensible limits on the New Economy's insatiable energy demands. Some individual lifestyle changes wouldn't hurt either; the most wasteful society on Earth can't expect the planet to subsidize its bad habits indefinitely.

Don't hold your breath for any leadership from the White House, however. For now, Toxic George and company are taking care of the folks who took care of them.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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