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Many ways, no will

LISTENING TO PRESIDENT Bush’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, you’d think the United States has reached bottom in its addiction to foreign oil and is so desperate to break free that it will take the ultimate step -- investing in research -- to find a way out. But, by and large, it isn’t a lack of technology that keeps the nation so dependent on oil. It’s the lack of will to use it.

Engineers have produced a basket of new technologies for making cars burn less gasoline, yet fuel standards for passenger cars in this country haven’t changed in more than two decades, and fuel economy has barely budged. Brazil has shown the way to energy independence by powering cars with ethanol made from sugar. This country, meanwhile, continues to pour billions of dollars in subsidies into producing ethanol less efficiently from corn. Advances in solar energy have made it less expensive and more reliable, yet only California is making a significant bid to exploit the power of the sun.

Instead of any decisive action to force or even encourage the adoption of these technologies, the president is proposing a 22% increase in energy-related research funding. Who would argue against more research? We won’t, certainly. Neither will industry or consumers, especially if the money comes not from higher gas prices or shareholder pockets but from digging a slightly deeper hole in the federal deficit. There is plenty of room to improve the science of new fuel sources, and the U.S. should lead the way.

The increase, generous though it is, doesn’t exactly amount to a Manhattan Project-like commitment to alternative energy sources. Further, such research will take many years to bring results, and nothing is guaranteed.

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Finally, Bush’s speech evinces a touching but mistaken faith that the automotive, power and building industries will absorb any new findings and immediately put them to work, freeing Americans from concerns about tightening global oil supplies.

Recent history tells us differently. Technologies that could make the U.S. more energy independent sit on the shelf while the automotive industry dithers about raising the price of a car by a couple of thousand dollars (money that could largely be recouped in savings on gasoline) to raise gas mileage by about 20 miles per gallon. Bush also talked about investing in zero-emissions coal plants. Yet, after a former EPA administrator said the technology existed to reduce mercury pollution at coal-fired plants by 90% within a few years, the Bush administration issued far weaker regulations.

The energy legislation passed last year provides individual homeowners with tax incentives to install solar energy units, but it does nothing to lure builders into solar, which would have a far greater effect.

How about importing ethanol from Brazil to put more fuel-efficient cars on the road now? That would mean dropping tariffs and ending protectionism for U.S. corn growers. But then, perhaps the president is worried about the nation’s growing reliance on foreign sugar.


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