Republican energy bill environmentally unfriendly

By Sarah Eldridge

You don’t know how relieved I was to find out that the Senate and the House had agreed on the first comprehensive energy bill in years. The bill is scheduled to go before the full House on Tuesday. It’s about time that we renewed our commitment to federal tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuel power plants and greater research in nuclear power. If any sector in the economy needs a government bailout it’s the billion-dollar energy industry.

The details of the bill, while sketchy (of course—when are energy bills not sketchy with Dick Cheney and the rest of the Republican Party at the helm?), promise to pander to special interests. Paying deference to the wishes of Senator Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, the bill grants a production credit to nuclear power plants and further exempts them from liability. This, of course, is all part of the Bush master plan for attaining energy independence and increasing security. “A good energy bill is part of my six-point economic plan to create the conditions for job creation and a sustained recovery,” President Bush said in a statement released by the White House on November 14. “By making America less reliant on foreign sources of energy, we also will make our nation more secure.” Forgive me for being a little doubtful. In this age of increased terror alerts, encouraging the expansion of nuclear power plants does not seem like a move to enhance security, especially when audits of existing power plants have revealed severe security deficiencies.

Yet the moneyed nuclear power lobby, which has managed to overcome popular opposition following the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents, is not the only industry that stands to benefit from the bill. The bill earmarks some $18 billion to foster coal use in power plants. The bill promotes drilling in offshore waters and in marginally productive oil wells and provides for the construction of a natural gas pipeline. Continuing the Bush administration’s trend of environmental regulation rollbacks (i.e. the Clear Skies Initiative), the energy bill promises relaxed environmental regulations. I say, why just stop with relaxing regulations? It’s just inefficient to waste all the time and resources finding ways around the regulations. It would be much more efficient to do away with environmental regulations completely.

Throwing yet another bone to struggling big businesses, the compromise bill retroactively exempts the manufacturer of the controversial gas additive MTBE from liability for water pollution cleanup costs. In a strange coincidence, which I am sure that the lawmakers were unaware of, New Hampshire, New York, and California all filed lawsuits in the last few months to recoup costs incurred while cleaning up pollution caused by MTBE. I’m sure that once the Republicans in Congress realize this slight oversight, the passage will be stricken from the bill. So don’t worry about that one.

And who were the big losers in the bill? Well, energy efficiency was scarcely mentioned. Auto manufacturers will not be required to increase fuel efficiency standards. A proposal requiring energy producers to use a certain percentage of renewable fuel sources didn’t make the cut either. In the words of Anne Aurilio, legislative director for the United States Public Interest Research Group: “The big winner is big oil. The big loser is anyone who breathes, pays a utility bill, or drinks water.” That’s a lot of losers.

There’s really only one conclusion that I can reach from this bill: Republicans just don’t give a damn about clean air. Time and time again, the Bush administration and Republican leadership have demonstrated their commitment to big industry at the expense of the environment. But you have to admit, crafting a bill like this takes courage. It takes a lot of guts to be that blatant about paying off the campaign contributors at the expense of everyone who breathes and drinks water.

Bush and the other GOPers on the Hill feel free to disregard the environment because they feel that it isn’t a watershed issue that will make or break a candidate. But it should be. How we handle environmental issues will determine our future quality of life. Furthermore, our handling of environmental issues provides a clue to the level of importance that we attach to international concerns and global equity. The Bush administration seems content to endanger our future and alienate the world so that we can have the right to life, liberty, and cheap fuel for our SUVs.

In a little less than a year from now, the American people will have a say in choosing their new energy bill. And it won’t cost them any campaign contributions. On November 4, 2004, citizens can vote for a Democratic candidate for President and send Bush back to his Texas ranch (which, somewhat ironically, is equipped with state of the art energy efficiency technologies). All of the Democrats (all nine of them—pick your favorite) espouse energy plans that encourage renewable energy sources, address global warming, increase efficiency, and decrease dependence on fossil fuels. A Republican candidate, and certainly not Bush, is unlikely to deliver all that. I’m not saying that Republicans are bad people. They just don’t care about clean air.