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Jewish World Review June 7, 2001 / 17 Sivan 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Democrats should quit demagoging on energy policy -- FOR the country's sake, Democrats and Republicans should quit squabbling over the energy crisis and work together to solve it. Democrats, in particular, have been demagoging the issue, portraying California electricity shortages and high gasoline prices as energy industry conspiracies and President Bush as a tool of big oil.

To the extent that they admit the problem is real, Democrats act as if conservation and alternative fuels alone will solve the problem and that encouraging oil, gas and coal production is simply a plot to destroy the environment for the sake of boosting the profits of the energy industry.

The Democrats did put out a positive energy program, but they have spent most of their time attacking Bush's - clearly demonstrating more interest in winning the 2002 elections than in making sure the U.S. economy has enough fuel to grow. If they are interested in climbing down from their oppositionism, Democrats ought to consult the "New Democrat" Progressive Policy Institute, which has been critical of Bush, but is developing a balanced, positive approach to the energy crisis. To some degree, the Bush administration opened the way for Democratic attacks by initially portraying conservation as ineffective - almost wimpy - and by making fun of alternative energy sources.

Bush originally acted callous toward California, blaming it for the blackouts and indicating there was next to nothing the federal government could or should do to ease the pain.

The President also cut funding for energy research and allowed his first environmental announcements to suggest that pollution was simply the price America has to pay for prosperity. Moreover, after summarily dumping the flawed Kyoto Agreement on climate change, Bush failed to say what, if anything, he plans to do about global warming.

So Democrats saw a juicy opportunity to play 2002 politics with energy and the environment and took it. The Democratic National Committee launched the Web site Grand Old Petroleum.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) quipped that GOP now stands for "Gas, Oil and Plutonium." And even though Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) plans to investigate high gasoline prices, he's already made up his mind that "price gouging" is to blame.

There's evidence that Democratic attacks are achieving some political success. A Time-CNN poll last week revealed that 49 percent of voters think Bush's energy performance is "poor," while 38 percent believe it's "good."

Various polls indicate that a plurality of Americans believe that energy companies, not the laws of supply and demand, are responsible for shortages and high prices.

Even so, poll scores won't solve the nation's energy crunch; only a balanced program of more production and more conservation will - a program that includes oil, gas, coal, and nuclear and renewable sources, such as wind, solar, biomass and hydropower.

Bush belatedly came up with such a plan, unveiled May 17, but his early bias toward fossil fuel and nuclear production makes his pro-conservation and alternative source ideas sound phony.

While the President is right to say that price caps will not solve California's electricity shortages - in fact, they will encourage consumption - he's given next to no credence to the idea that generating companies may be unfairly jacking up prices.

Moreover, Bush is misusing the California crisis to campaign for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. Oil accounts for only about 5 percent of the fuel used in electricity generation.

Just as the Democrats are pummeling Bush, Republican groups are in the process of mounting an advertising campaign to blame current energy problems on former President Bill Clinton.

However, when the finger-pointing is done, there has to be a solution to energy shortages. PPI is working on a "third way" strategy emphasizing a balanced approach and technology. Technological advances, one member of PPI's task force noted, make it possible to extract, produce and use energy more efficiently, safely and cleanly than ever before.

The group has yet to decide on exploration of ANWR, but is inclined to favor new nuclear plants, which can generate electricity without producing greenhouse gases.

PPI's group is also working on novel ideas, such as creating a market whereby auto companies can trade auto-emission and fuel-efficiency "credits" the way factories do with pollution, so that clean and efficient automakers would profit and others would pay.

It is also coming up with "circuit breaker" price caps for Western states that would take effect temporarily when prices surge above certain levels - and only if the states are doing their best to conserve and generate more power.

The bottom line is that the Bush administration, legitimately criticized for its callousness on energy and the environment, has finally advanced a broad policy. Democrats ought to quit skewering Bush for past mistakes and start working with him on real solutions.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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