Drilling for Ire

The Bush administration's consistency on energy policy is driving its critics nuts.

"It’s certainly a good thing to conserve energy in our daily lives and we certainly want to do that, and probably all of us can think of ways to do so," Vice President Richard Cheney told the annual meeting of the Associated Press two Mondays back. He had arrived at the conclusion of a detailed speech previewing the recommendations of the energy panel he heads.

He’d already discussed the nation’s energy problem--we don't have enough of it--and the role various fuels currently play in powering our lives. "The reality is that fossil fuels provide virtually 100 percent of our transportation needs and an overwhelming share of our electricity requirements," said Cheney. "For years down the road, this will continue to be true."

He’d acknowledged that coal, the largest source of electricity in the United States, is "not the cleanest source of energy." Said Cheney, "We must support efforts to improve clean coal technology to soften its impact on the environment."

He’d even tipped his hat to alternative energy sources. "There’s been progress in the use of biomass, geothermal, wind, and solar energy," he said. "Twenty years from now, with continued advances in research and development, we might reasonably expect renewables to meet three times the share of energy needs they meet today. But that would still be only 6 percent of our total needs."

So it was time to talk about the role of conservation. Cheney recalled Jimmy Carter’s put-on-a-sweater-and-shiver routine back in the 1970s. "Conservation is an important part of the total effort," he said. "But to speak exclusively of conservation is to duck the tough issues. Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis all by itself for sound, comprehensive energy policy. We also have to produce more."

It was as if he’d said nothing else. "The duty to conserve," Washington Post columnist Marjorie Williams fretted the next day, "has simply vanished from our vision, a cultural artifact as anachronistic as the Edsel."

"Conservation is for sissies and self-righteous fatheads who think they’re better than real people," Post columnist Mary McGrory wrote mockingly a few days later. "Real men drill. Real mean dig coal. Real men go nuclear."

Histrionics aside, what exactly is wrong with what Cheney said? Democrats think Bush is vulnerable on the environment, and one can’t blame them for distorting his record and attacking his soft spots. That’s politics.

"Everyone said Bush would run America like a CEO," says Tyson Slocum, a senior researcher at the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen. "He’s running it like an oil CEO."

Perhaps. But then again, he campaigned like an oil CEO. On Tuesday's edition of CNBC’s Hardball, host Chris Matthews and Newsweek’s Howard Fineman spoke ominously of how Bush’s energy plan matched a post-election wish list developed by energy executives. (Energy industry campaign contributions were also mentioned, of course.) Yet, the energy plan that Cheney outlined last Monday -- and will continue to leak out in bits and pieces until President Bush officially unveils it next week -- appears to be a carbon copy of the energy policy on which the pair campaigned. (Beltway types may hate coal, but constituents like it plenty in West Virginia, a state that Bush won largely on his pro-coal sentiments.)

Reporters didn’t seem to have a problem digging back in Bush's campaign speeches to find his broken promise of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. They ought to now return to that speech -- and the 16 pages of energy policy on his campaign Web site -- and give Bush credit for keeping his campaign promise to expand fossil fuel production while plowing various subsidies back into research for alternative fuels. "No matter how advanced our economy might be," candidate Bush told a Saginaw, Michigan, audience last September, "no matter how sophisticated our equipment becomes, for the foreseeable future we will depend on fossil fuels."

That was his message then. He promised to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, explore other federal lands for oil and natural gas, and pursue policies that speed the construction of natural gas pipelines and oil refineries.

That's his message now, too. To be sure, there are plenty of reasons to criticize Bush’s plan: It smacks of centrally planned industrial policy, with its exact projections of how many power plants and miles of pipelines we need. It also promises to contain myriad subsidies for research--and conservation efforts, too--that will turn out to be boondoggles. But it's simply ridiculous to call him out for not placing Jimmy Carter-style conservation at the center of his plan.

"He's been consistent," grants Public Citizen's Slocum, who adds that Americans use more than our "fair share" of the world’s energy and that we need to conserve, conserve, conserve. "He’s been very consistent."

Maybe that’s what really grates on his critics.

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