Bingaman with a Plan

After two decades of drift and a year of crisis, the
Democrats have finally proposed a serious, future-oriented energy policy. The
Energy Policy Act of 2002 (Senate bill S1766), introduced by Senate Energy
Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, does not come a moment too soon:
The lack of a coherent Democratic energy doctrine has played to the benefit of a
particularly oil-intent Republican White House. Notably, House Democrats helped
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney beat back amendments on auto fuel efficiency and
Alaskan oil drilling last summer. Of the two parties' long-term energy
strategies, Bill Wicker, communications director for the Senate Energy Committee,
remarked at the time: "We agree on far more than we disagree."

Bingaman's new bill doesn't exactly come out swinging, but it provides a
welcome starting point for those who wish to reverse the trend of the last 20
years. Since the 1980s, massive public subsidies have poured into the fossil-fuel
and nuclear industries. Renewable energy sources are increasingly
costcompetitive with fossil fuels, create more jobs, and hold out the promise of
reducing the greenhouse effect; but they are supported by only a slow trickle of
public funds. Currently, 50 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from coal,
while 20 percent is nuclear. On May 17, 2001, Bush and Cheney set forth a plan
that would extend this arrangement in perpetuity. (Late in the day, the
Republicans added a few sops to renewable energy and conservation in response to
polls showing that these strategies are very popular.)

Bingaman's bill, introduced in December and co-sponsored by Senate majority
leader Tom Daschle, evinces a somewhat more guarded enthusiasm for nuclear power
and coal, though it shares Bush and Cheney's preoccupation with drilling projects
and infrastructure (transmission lines and pipelines). The Democratic proposal
calls for greater vehicle fuel efficiency and for forming a national commission
on climate change. Following criticism from environmentalists, on December 5
Bingaman added a requirement that 10 percent of America's electric power be
generated from renewable sources by 2020.

Not all environmentalists are satisfied: Bingaman includes old-line
hydroelectric power as a renewable source, although most renewable power
advocates favor wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass technologies. Even the 10
percent goal seems modest when compared with Jimmy Carter's Domestic Policy
Review, initiated in 1978, which set a national goal of 20 percent renewables by
2000. But the future seldom arrives overnight, and so Bingaman and other Senate
Democrats start by arguing for upgrading our conventional energy infrastructure,
including electricity transmission lines, natural-gas pipelines, and refinery
capacity. Bingaman also advocates exploring new nuclear and "clean-coal"
technologies.

Nuclear power is an extraordinarily complex technology for the rather mundane
task of boiling water. It has advantages: Relying on nuclear power can reduce the
greenhouse effect, for one thing. For another, nuclear plants have a reputation
for steady service (despite recent problems at the San Onofre facility in
California). On the darker side, nuclear energy entails massive capital
investment, including major government subsidies; there is still no effective
waste-disposal solution, and the industry plays a potential role in
nuclear-weapons proliferation.

That Bingaman talks up clean coal should be no surprise: His home state of New
Mexico hosts federal lab research on new coal technology. Clean coal today aims
primarily to reduce particulate emissions, not greenhouse gases. Technology now
under study proposes to gasify coal and eliminate carbon, which would then be
disposed of by injection into the earth. But such visions are far from current
realities--and more feasible and benign new technologies lie closer at hand in
the form of renewables, which are less carbon-intensive in the first place.

Like the Bush-Cheney plan, Bingaman's bill promotes deregulation--a strategy
that has already proved disastrous, not least in California. There, deregulated
utilities shifted their assets and transformed themselves into wide-ranging power
companies, turning their attention to operations around the country and in other
parts of the world. As a result, they failed to see the local crisis until it was
upon them.

If deregulation proceeds, public power must expand apace. After all, public
utilities are cheaper and at least as reliable as private ones. In a deregulated
market, the government can be the critical guarantor of reserve capacity, a
backup supply that a strictly profit-driven system has little incentive to build.
Public-utility companies can also provide a competitive benchmark for private
ones--all while leading the way toward conservation and renewable sources.

The good news is that California is undertaking just such a program with its
new state power authority. The bad news is that national Democrats, Bingaman
included, haven't had much to say about public energy. But their bill has already
improved once. And in the wake of September 11, it has never been clearer that
energy is crucial to national security. The time is right for progressives to
push for stronger action to end the addiction to fossil fuels.

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