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The energy crisis is here

By
May 19, 2006


The uh-oh letter came in a plain white envelope, no indication of the bolt of lightning inside.

It was from the electric company, announcing that the “average” residential customer’s bill will increase 41 percent, meaning about $800 more a year. I am not average. My bill will go up about $1,500 a year _ if I use no air conditioning at all this summer.

The letter explained that the “prices for the fuels used to generate electricity (coal, oil and natural gas) have all increased substantially in the past few years.” Another increase is likely a year from now.

The company (motto: “We’re connected to you by more than power lines”) advises that the best thing to do is conserve energy in such ways as not wasting hot water, keeping the thermostat low in the winter and high in the summer, and turning off lights when leaving a room.

A new poll by The Washington Post and ABC News has found that Americans are less pessimistic this month about gas prices than in April, when 70 percent said fueling their cars was causing financial hardship. Now, 57 percent say that is the case, even though paying $3 for a gallon of gas has become routine for many Americans. Possibly, knowing that Europeans pay $5 a gallon makes us feel a little guilty about complaining.

The lesson for me is that we are never in our lifetime going to see cheap energy again, and, painful though it will be, we will get used to it. We have no choice because our country has no energy policy because its politicians don’t realize we’re in a full-fledged energy crisis.

In a brand-new development, we now compete with millions of people in China for finite fuels, and the tradeoffs in our foreign policy we are going to make will be galling. (Note: Libya, which blew Pan Am 103 out of the skies _ the deadliest terrorist attack on Americans until 9/11, is now our friend. Prediction: Oil-rich countries with anti-democratic dictators will be increasingly tolerated.)

It’s well and good for President Bush to tell us to end our “addiction to oil,” as he did in January, but that is not going to be easy. The electric company’s 85 common ways to save electric energy involve much less comfort, spending money on new equipment, hiring contractors or such simple changes that many energy-conscious homeowners have already done them. Tell a soccer mom who carpools kids around half the day that she should get rid of her gas-guzzling SUV, and she’ll shrug her shoulders helplessly.

Global demand for energy is expected to increase 50 percent in 25 years. America’s oil and natural-gas industry, represented by the American Petroleum Institute, says that in the last 13 years its companies have invested $1 trillion in exploration and new production. That’s how it justifies the huge revenues from consumers the industry is accumulating. But how else will it get $6 trillion to invest in producing more oil and gas by 2030?

The administration’s approach to serious energy problems is to throw environmental caution to the winds, relax regulations and let the companies do just about what they please. Congress so far has blocked efforts to end the ban on offshore oil and gas drilling, but sooner or later the ban will end. The stupid idea of giving consumers $100 gas rebate checks in an age of huge deficits is dead, but it won’t be the last silly idea politicians come up with to try to assuage angry voters.

This country needs to develop an environmentally sensitive energy policy, go on an energy-conservation binge by mandating tougher energy-efficiency standards, decrease our dependence on foreign oil instead of increasing it, raise gasoline taxes to promote more research on renewable sources of alternative energy, stop waging war with oil-rich countries, stop giving oil-rich dictators our petrodollars and make hybrid cars more economically viable.

This will not happen in the next two and a half years _ Bush has not the time, interest or political capital to push such steps. Basically, the former Texas oilman wants to kick the can down the road, letting oil and gas companies contaminate environmentally sensitive areas by trying to find a little more gas and oil, which will not solve our long-term problem at all.

This is like an out-of-work father just about out of money spending his few remaining dollars on lottery tickets instead of investing in training for a new job.

Meanwhile, as we stagger toward the realization that we are in a full-fledged energy crisis, I am hoping for a cooler-than-normal summer.

(Scripps Howard News Service columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)