HERE'S A PREDICTION: At some point -- maybe 10 years from now, maybe 20 -- the energy bill currently wending its way through the Senate will be seen as an enormously significant lost opportunity. This is not because the bill itself is so terrible; it's not, though it may become far worse in the process of being reconciled with the more pro-pollution, pro-oil-industry version approved by the House. No, this is a lost opportunity precisely because many senators have come to the right conclusions about the direction energy policy should take, but the body as a whole is not yet willing to act on them.
By this, we mean that at a time of rising oil prices, global warming and increasing political instability in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations that produce the cheapest crude oil, the United States must reorient its energy policy in a far more dramatic way. Economic, environmental and security concerns should by now have led all American politicians to the same conclusion: It is time to decrease this country's dependence on fossil fuels.
More specifically, any politicians who care about the future economic, environmental and political stability of this country should right now be seeking to end the de facto subsidies for the oil and gas industries, aggressively promote research into new forms of ethanol and biofuel, limit automobile fuel consumption, and tax or cap the carbon emissions created by the burning of fossil fuels, which most scientists believe to be an important cause of global warming. With taxes and market incentives, it would be possible today to encourage the rapid deployment of existing technology and dramatically reduce this country's dependence on petroleum.
Neither the White House nor congressional leaders nor the Republican Party as a whole has yet accepted this case, perhaps because none has managed to overcome the pressure of the automobile, utility, oil, gas and other lobbies that spend enormous amounts of money trying to protect the status quo. But, despite heavy White House lobbying, a handful of Senate Republicans did break with party orthodoxy last week on at least the environmental issue. They voted in favor of a "sense of the Senate" resolution that recognizes for the first time that climate change is a scientific fact, that carbon emissions contribute to climate change and that mandatory controls eventually will have to be deployed. Some in the Senate also recognize that energy policy is too important to this country's security to fall victim to partisan welfare: Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), a leader on this bill, is to be commended for producing something this time around that a wider range of senators could accept.
But although better than its predecessor, this energy bill is essentially a status quo bill: It still doesn't shift this country as far in the direction of alternative fuels as it should go, and of course it does not dare raise taxes on petroleum use in any way. Notwithstanding the self-congratulatory rhetoric you will hear if the bill passes this week, it's nothing to be proud of.