Commentary: Don't Write Off Energy Conservation, Mr. Cheney

Give Vice-President Dick Cheney credit; he says what he thinks. In his Apr. 30 speech in Toronto previewing the Bush Administration's energy policy, he bluntly rejected conservation as a major part of the solution to the current energy crisis. His plans focus almost exclusively on boosting domestic oil sources, building refineries, and laying natural-gas pipelines. Conservation, Cheney said, "is not a sufficient basis, all by itself, for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." Moreover, he added, the government shouldn't "step in to force Americans to consume less energy."

Cheney is right in one respect: There's no question that the U.S. must increase supplies of electricity and gasoline. But his needlessly harsh rejection of conservation sets up a false dichotomy. We need not choose between boosting supply or cutting demand: The President's energy plan should do both.

SMALL SACRIFICE. Cheney misconstrues the argument for conservation. Americans don't have to stop driving their SUVs or unplug their air conditioners. The point is to encourage development of more efficient cars, appliances, and power plants, which would cut energy demand without causing consumers too much pain.

The Administration is moving in the opposite direction. Not only does it dismiss conservation as part of its energy plan, it has proposed budget cuts of 30% or more from existing federal energy-efficiency research and development programs. That includes Energy Dept. projects to develop more efficient appliances, heating and cooling systems, and buildings. It also wants to cut projects to develop energy-efficiency R&D partnerships with industry.

Yet there's plenty of real world experience showing that efficiency programs not only save energy, they often cut costs as well. Ford Motor Co., for example, trimmed its electricity bill by $2.5 million per year when it installed efficient lighting in seven manufacturing plants. And replacing old boiler houses in plants re- duced natural gas use by 50% annually.

According to the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy, a nonpartisan group formed to promote efficient energy use, the $12 billion the Energy Dept. has invested in energy-efficiency R&D since 1978 has saved consumers $100 billion in energy costs. The alliance cites a General Accounting Office report that found $50 billion was saved thanks to DOE programs encouraging efficiency in such things as fluorescent lighting, refrigerators, and building designs.

Or take the Administration's April decision to relax air-conditioner efficiency standards issued in the final days of the Clinton Presidency. Clinton wanted a 30% increase in efficiency; Bush lowered that to 20%. The tighter standards would have eliminated the need for at least a dozen new 400-megawatt power plants while only minimally raising air-conditioner prices.

Improving the fuel efficiency of automobiles would also go a long way to cutting U.S. energy demand. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, in Washington, concludes in a new report that boosting fuel efficiency by 5% a year over the next 10 years would reduce oil demand by 1.5 million barrels per day by 2010 and 4.8 million barrels per day by 2020. Currently, the U.S. imports about 10 million barrels per day.

Already, Ford has promised to boost the efficiency of its SUVs by 25% in the next five years, and General Motors and DaimlerChrysler have pledged to do what Ford does. The Administration ought to develop policies that build on the auto makers' own efforts to raise standards. Or it could develop incentives to help spur sales of new, highly efficient hybrid vehicles and fuel-cell-powered cars--expected to debut in the next few years--which could substantially cut energy demand. "We're asking Congress for tax incentives for consumers, to help get the vehicles on the road," says Gloria Bergquist, vice-president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

It's unclear why Cheney took such a hard line against conservation. Perhaps it's because he has an oilman's view of the world: Drill, drill, drill. Maybe he was simply staking out a tough bargaining position. Let's hope so. Conservation needs to be part of the solution to the nation's energy crisis. Cheney ought to give it another look.

By Paul Raeburn

With bureau reports

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