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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, March 1, 2002

Congress must pay attention to energy

It's not clear how much was typical photo-op tomfoolery and how much was a sincere effort to get the nation focused on alternative energy futures, but it was heartening to see President Bush putting in a plug for something other than fossil fuel this week.

With the U.S. Senate ready to take up a sweeping energy bill, Bush took time out to display three "hybrid" vehicles on the White House driveway. These are vehicles that combine internal combustion with electric propulsion, offering the hope of vastly decreased fuel consumption and cleaner operation.

Bush also boosted his proposal for billions in consumer tax credits for people who buy the hybrid vehicles and — later on — vehicles powered by hydrogen cell technology that would eliminate the internal combustion engine.

One hopes this newfound interest in alternatives to fossil fuel is sincere. It may help tilt the balance in the Senate toward alternative and renewable fuels and away from the ill-considered plan to open up oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. At this point, Bush appears determined to push ahead with the Alaska plan, couching his energy rhetoric in terms of avoiding dependence on "foreign oil" as a matter of national security.

But "national security" represents an analysis that could just as easily apply to dependence on limited domestic supplies as to foreign sources.

During the presidential campaign, Bush was openly derisive of Democrat Al Gore's support for hybrid vehicles and of Gore's proposal that the United States should eventually eliminate the internal combustion engine as a source of vehicle power. Clearly, his thinking has changed, but has it changed enough?

The energy debate offers stark contrast between those who believe our best hope lies in developing domestic sources of oil and natural gas and those who see our long-term future resting on alternatives. There is a danger that, with oil supplies plentiful and prices relatively low, there will be little urgency on behalf of alternatives.

That would be a mistake. In fact, with short-term supplies of fossil fuel in abundant supply, it is the ideal time to push forward on the longer-term effort to create realistic alternatives. We don't want to do this work in a crisis atmosphere.

Congress has not taken up a comprehensive energy bill in more than a decade. There is a chance this year to truly set the nation on a course of energy independence that is sustainable and realistic. The Senate should take the photo op as deadly serious and do the right thing.