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Creaky Energy Policy: A Chance for Change : Delay in Bush’s nearsighted plan opens door for Congress

Gasoline consumption in the United States is again creeping upward, and nearly 50% of that consumption depends on foreign oil. The nation is less able than ever to meet oil-price shocks with alternative energy sources. That alone should make Congress and the President work together on a national energy policy.

But the Senate last week stalled action on the Bush Administration’s energy policy. And given that the Administration policy was tilted heavily toward production and away from waste-reducing conservation, it deserved the brushoff.

SECOND CHANCE: Washington now has a second chance to do better. It should require more-efficient cars, appliances and other energy guzzlers, encourage the search for cheaper solar energy and other alternatives, and let the oil industry’s ardor for digging up the wilderness cool off.

Further, it must search hard for ways other than the superficial notions in the Bush bill to revive nuclear power if future energy needs make more nuclear plants inevitable.

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The bill probably cannot be salvaged until next year, and even then the Senate is likely to strip it of the Administration plan to allow drilling rigs to explore for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. That is a good move on the merits. Certainly opening the refuge would make no sense at all until there is an investigation of claims that some companies were hiding richer new finds elsewhere in Alaska until drilling in the refuge was approved.

Congress must also rethink Administration proposals involving automobiles and nuclear power plants.

Transportation burns up nearly two-thirds of the oil consumed in America. But efforts to cut energy waste in transportation got the back of the hand from the White House. If drilling rigs were allowed in the Alaska wildlife refuge, as the Administration suggested, the United States could hope for about half a million barrels of day in new supplies at best. A plan to increase the average fuel efficiency of cars to 40 miles per gallon by the turn of the century would save four times as much oil, a fact the bill ignored.

STREAMLINING?: The bill’s nuclear power plans were even weaker. It can be argued that the nation is building no new nuclear power today in part because expansion-oriented licensing procedures have cleared plants that were accident-prone or built in the wrong place.

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This has led to high costs and public apprehension. How to cure that? The White House would speed up licensing by, among other things, cutting out public hearings on new plants.

There is a familiar ring to this approach. John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff and a formidable advocate of nuclear power, is impatient with delay of new starts.

But the process cannot be streamlined until America finds a way to standardize the design of nuclear power plants so that flaws in one could be corrected in all the others. As it is now, no two plants are alike.

Finally, helping bring safer, more efficient new designs of nuclear plants on line is far more important than streamlining a process for expanding the number of older models.

Congress should be looking toward a more secure energy future for the nation--not toward a more comfortable present for the energy industry.


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