The final form of the energy legislation being considered by congressional negotiators remains uncertain, but what has leaked out of the conference committee to date, if enacted into law, would be a giant step backwards for energy policy and for our nation. Any meaningful energy policy must meet three main goals: it must reduce dependence on unstable forms of energy, advance technologies that create jobs and reduce pollution, and help deliver reliable, affordable energy. The current energy bill fails on all counts.
Largely the product of the still-secret 2001 Energy Task Force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, the bill is a prime example of the dangers of opaque decision making – where the process is not subject to public scrutiny, key voices are denied a seat at the table and deals are cut in the proverbial smoke-filled backroom. What has been produced is not a cohesive energy strategy but a loose conglomeration of symbolic programs and massive political payoffs that, taken together, constitute a public fraud on the American people.
The energy bill would weaken national security in two major ways. First, the bill fails the crucial goal of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. It creates new loopholes in fuel economy laws and lacks firm deadlines to develop and deploy advanced hydrogen and hybrid vehicles. By remaining overly dependent on foreign oil supplies, especially from the Middle East, it is more difficult to conduct our foreign policy on principle – especially when it involves standing up to countries that are major suppliers of oil to the U.S. Second, it irresponsibly reverses a long-standing U.S. nonproliferation policy, permitting the reprocessing of nuclear waste from commercial reactors. New streams of weapons grade plutonium and expanded training and infrastructure to develop these deadly materials weakens the United States’ effort to curtail new weapons programs. These steps would be taken while our nuclear power plants remain unsecure, testing procedures are inadequate and the global security situation worsens.
The bill also deals a severe blow to our economy. While record deficits mount, costs in Iraq spiral out of control, and important domestic programs get slashed, the administration is pushing an energy bill that would add at least $50 billion to the national debt over the next decade – $18 billion through tax breaks alone. Big energy companies enjoy federal largesse at the expense of crucial domestic spending needs like education, housing, and health care. Worse, the tax breaks go to profitable corporations to perform tasks they would do regardless of any subsidy. The bill gives oil, gas and nuclear companies over $13 billion in subsidies – not a bad reward for the $49 million energy industries spent in campaign contributions in the year 2000. The bill suspends the requirement that companies pay for the right to profit from energy reserves on publicly owned land, and forces the federal government to pick up the tab when oil and gas companies to conduct necessary environmental reviews of their projects. And American workers get short shrift. Despite support of a bipartisan majority in the Senate, the bill lacks standards to deploy clean, renewable energy technologies which create new jobs, spur regional economic development and lower energy bills.
Finally, the bill would be an environmental and public health disaster. It fails to do anything to address our most pressing energy-related problem – global warming. It erodes drinking water protections to allow oil and gas companies to inject toxic fluids into groundwater supplies. It exempts companies who drill for oil and gas from regulations requiring the clean-up of storm water pollution. During the secret conference negotiations, more dirty air provisions have been added, including a delay in scheduled reductions of mercury pollution that causes neurological and developmental damage in children, and a deal that lets areas with pollution that exceed safe levels to simply ignore the problem. The bill opens the door to oil drilling off our shores, allowing air gun blasting and seismic testing in marine sanctuaries and off coastlines nationwide.
There is a better way. Numerous reports, including ones by the Energy Future Coalition, the Apollo Project, the NRDC, and even the Department of Energy have advanced comprehensive energy policies that would emphasize technological innovation, promote clean, sustainable energy production, and make major reductions in pollution. A responsible energy solution lies in developing more efficient buildings, appliances and factories, tapping domestic renewable energy potential, modernizing our electrical infrastructure, and deploying both near and long-term advanced transportation technologies. We should take the groundwork of these organizations to begin an inclusive national discussion about the future of energy policy and its direct impacts on our economy, our security, and out health. It is an issue that will profoundly effect all Americans and one in which all Americans should be included. Dispensing with the current energy bill, the deeply flawed product of a deeply flawed process, is a crucial first step.
John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, is the president and CEO of the Center for American Progress.