Running on empty


The Bush administration unveiled its long-awaited energy strategy this week, and the thrust of it seems to be -- no strategy at all. Instead, the administration is offering more of the same decade-old wishful thinking that led to the dangerous dependence on foreign oil we are now fighting to protect in the Persian Gulf.

At the heart of Bush's "new" program are plans to increase domestic production by tapping offshore reserves in Alaska, use of alternative fuels and streamlining procedures to build nuclear power plants. All these initiatives are strongly supported by domestic energy producers. But the new policy offers precious few incentives for savings through conservation and offers almost no hope of significantly reducing America's long-term addiction to imported oil -- an addiction attested by the fact that the 2 percent of the world's population which lives in the United States consumes a quarter of the world's petroleum.

To cite just one example, consider that nearly half the nation's 34 million barrel-a-day oil habit is consumed in the form of gas for cars. Yet instead of calling on U.S. automakers to produce more-fuel efficient cars, the administration is actually proposing to lower the current gas mileage standard of 27.5 miles per gallon for new cars. Raising the standard to 40 miles per gallon, as some environmentalists propose, would save 10 times the amount of oil estimated to lie in the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Bush administration wants to open up to commercial exploitation -- and damn the environmental consequences. The administration's proposal makes no mention of obvious alternatives, such as expanding the public transportation network or forcing conservation through higher gas taxes.

Energy Secretary James D. Watkins concedes the proposals are not designed to break the country's dependence on foreign oil, only to keep it from getting worse. But the country is already importing half its oil, roughly twice as much as it was at the beginning of the 1980s. As a strategy for energy independence, the Bush proposals are virtually guaranteed to keep America running on empty well into the next century.

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