To no one's particular surprise, the Bush Administration's national energy plan, unveiled by the president himself in a hopscotching cross-country campaign, leans heavily toward a petroleum-based future.

While a cursory nod was given to development of alternative energy sources, as helping to “provide a reliable source of energy at a stable price and…generate income for farmers, landowners, and others who harness them,” the plan offers no specific goals for the sector in contributing to greater energy indepedence for the U.S. in the future.

The 163-page plan, containing more than 100 recommendations, was put together by the National Energy Policy Development Group — headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, whose vast fortune came from the petroleum sector — and calls for increasing energy production through additional oil/gas exploration, relaxing environmental regulations on oil refineries and electric generating plants, building new nuclear generation facilities, new auto fuel economy standards, construction of new oil/gas pipelines, tax credits for home solar panels and other conservation measures, and (waving a red flag in the face of environmental groups) opening the Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil/gas drilling.

Noting that the U.S. is facing “the most serious energy shortage since the oil embargo of the 1970s,” the president warned “if we fail to act, we could face a darker future — a future that is…being previewed in rising prices at the gas pump and rolling blackouts in California.”

Over the next two decades, the report says, an energy-hungry nation is projected to slurp up 33 percent more oil, 50 percent more natural gas, and 45 percent more electricity. The “fundamental imbalance between supply and demand…if allowed to continue, will inevitably undermine our economy, our standard of living, and our national security.”

Democrats and environmental groups were quick to lambaste the plan. “The president has no program for the short term,” said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. “He's telling people they're on their own” in coping with high fuel costs and electricity shortages. The White House countered that “markets will see that more supply is on the way, conservation is starting to be emphasized, and (this) combination…has an effect on markets.”

Even some Republican lawmakers were lukewarm to the report, suggesting they would press for a reduction in the 18.4-cent federal gasoline tax and greater incentives for energy conservation.

While the bulk of the Bush plan centers on continued emphasis on traditional energy sources, it does propose a continuation of the excise tax exemption for ethanol, now made chiefly from corn and used as a gasoline blend. The alcohol product is the most-used of the “biofuels,” and production has increased from 200 million gallons annually in 1980 to 1.9 billion gallons today, with new processing plants coming on line. The Energy Department has estimated biofuels could create as much as $20 billion a year of new income for farmers and reduce greenhouse gases by 100 million tons a year.

A number of states are considering phasing out the ether gasoline additive MTBE, which the report says should further boost the use of ethanol.

The use of biomass materials from crops, forest wastes, and other “green” sources for making ethanol is also encouraged in the report, as is “biodiesel,” a fuel made from vegetable oils, chiefly soybean oil (currently in heavy surplus, depressing the prices of soybeans and other oilseeds), which are easily blended with diesel.

Nearly 20 U.S. senators are pushing the administration to put greater emphasis on biodiesel and ethanol, noting that just a 3 percent market share for the two products could replace 500,000 to 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

“All sources of fuel and energy must be thoroughly explored,” says Sen. Chuck Hagel, 103R-Neb., “and since biodiesel is compatible with existing diesel engine technology and infrastructure, it can be used in a number of beneficial ways.”

Biodiesel, the safest of all fuels, is the only alternative fuel to have passed the rigorous health effects testing requirements of the federal Clean Air Act.


e-mail: hembree_brandon@intertec.com