Power battle

Mayor Schell and environmentalists use a hearing to blast the Bush administration's energy policy.

ARMED WITH picket signs spotlighting a smorgasbord of environmental concerns, Northwest activists took aim last week at the proposed energy policy of President George Bush. The occasion for their broadside was the Department of Energy's public hearing held at the waterfront's Bell Harbor Conference Center. Ironically, it was the only hearing on the entire West Coast—the feds chose to bypass energy-hungry California entirely. The matter at hand was an eight-chapter document released by the White House last month that outlined the new president's plans to address the nation's latest energy crisis. Members of Bush's cabinet drafted the plan. "I'm sure they had a little help from the fossil fuel industry," jokes Mark Glyde, communications director for the NW Energy Coalition (NWEC).

It's hard to argue the point. Our former oilman (albeit one who never found much oil) chief executive favors addressing electricity shortages through the construction of massive new natural gas and coal plants—more than 1,300 over the next 20 years. He also devotes much attention to increasing domestic oil production (and thus reducing American dependence on foreign oil).

Local activists favor a very different approach. "Energy conservation is justice," says the Rev. Nancy Wright, speaking to a rally of about 100 people toting signs contesting the Bush administration's supply-side leanings (and responding to Vice President Dick Cheney's statement that "energy conservation is a personal virtue"). Wright and other speakers blasted the administration's call for increased domestic oil and natural gas production, instead requesting increased funding for research and development of alternative energy sources and conservation programs.

Inside, speakers at the hearing, led by Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, echoed the protesters' themes. Schell and other environmentalists question the feds' conventional wisdom that failure to create new generation is responsible for California's energy woes. In a 19-page letter addressed to Cheney, Schell refutes that point by noting that California has, in fact, added enough new energy production in the last 10 years to address about 10 percent of its peak demand.

The NWEC's Glyde says energy industry complaints about the difficulty of getting permits for new plants are unfounded. He cites some 15 proposed plants in California and the Northwest that have been permitted but not yet built. "I think [Bush] is trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist," he says of the president's call for easing permit restrictions in order to meet the administration's goal of 1,300 new plants.

Other activists are sounding the alarm over details not included in the glossy Bush plan (which, by the way, includes the loveliest photograph of an over- water oil derrick at sunset that you're ever likely to see). Steven Nadel, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, notes that the administration's proposed 2002 budget would significantly cut Department of Energy funding for research and development in the fields of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Nor does the plan propose any increase in gas mileage standards for new cars, despite Bush's concern over oil imports.

The president also shows an unusual interest in burning coal (currently the fuel source for about half of the nation's electricity production). He proposes a $2 billion investment over the next decade for research on how to minimize the environmental effects of producing electricity from coal. His critics note that using coal to produce electricity is not only expensive, but it's also a well-established energy source. "Coal is a mature technology—it's not something the federal government should be subsidizing," says Glyde. "Let the private market do that."

WHY ARE CONSERVATION and alternative energy programs so important? The Department of Energy's own figures show that the $712 million spent on energy efficiency research over the last 20 years led to more than $30 billion in energy savings.

Plus, the benefits of getting the government back into the alternative energy field could prove even more significant, says Denis Hayes, president of Seattle's Bullitt Foundation. The former head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a Jimmy Carter administration program to fast-track alternative energy research, Hayes argues that massive government involvement could bring solar energy technology into wide consumer use.

"We're in the middle of a communications revolution right now because the federal government bought a whole lot of integrated circuits at a time when they were very expensive," he says. In less than a decade, computer chips that once cost $100 each were available for a few bucks—and were far more powerful due to research advancements. Solar energy technology has largely "followed a learning curve that we mapped out in the 1970s," he says. But, due to limited profit potential, "it's taken them 20 years to go where we could have gone in four years."

The challenge is that energy conservation and alternative fuel sources are only popular in times of crisis. For example, many utilities have cut or eliminated conservation and home weatherization programs due to the relatively cheap fuel prices of the last five years. And as crude oil prices stabilized in the early 1980s, federal regulators lost interest in tightening gas mileage standards.

And Bush isn't exactly a friend of the environmental community. In a fine bit of symbolism, the money that the president wants to devote to renewable energy research would come from revenues created by opening part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

But even the president isn't immune to public pressure: Recent national polls show public approval of his energy policies at 33 percent and falling. Still, battling the White House on such a complex issue means environmentalists have a daunting educational effort ahead of them. "I don't think the public understands all the details," admits Nadel, "but I do think the public knows [Bush] is not telling the whole story."

jbush@seattleweekly.com

 
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