Energy Solutions

Posted Sept. 12, 2008, at 7:52 p.m.

With energy a primary focus in Washington, a bipartisan group of 20 senators, including Susan Collins, have come together to offer a comprehensive new energy plan. Their policy, a mix of more energy production, conservation and a lot of government funding, offers a good starting point for an overdue plan to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuel.

A central theme of the legislation, likely to be introduced next week, is the need to transition the United States away from oil, gas and coal to alternative energy sources. The Energy Reform Act of 2008 includes $20 billion for a project with the scope of the Apollo program, aimed at moving 85 percent of new motor vehicles away from petroleum-based fuels within 20 years. To do this, the legislation would provide $7.5 billion for research and development to remove technical barriers, such as developing better batteries for electric vehicles. Another $7.5 billion would go to U.S. auto makers and parts makers to help them prepare to make alternative fuel vehicles. Without guarantees of highly efficient vehicles for everyday car buyers and the preservation of jobs, this could become another costly bailout of an industry that was late in realizing the need to change.

Since the transition to new fuel sources will take time, the legislation calls for increased domestic energy production. It opens additional acreage in the Gulf of Mexico to drilling and gives several southern states the option to allow oil and gas leases off their coasts. Oil from these areas would be required to stay in the U.S, a feel-good but largely meaningless provision since petroleum is a global commodity and it won’t make much of a dent in the country’s need to import oil.

The bill would also support increased nuclear energy production by providing funding for research into spent fuel recycling, a key to handling nuclear waste.

To reduce fossil fuel use during the transition, the legislation also includes federal support for conservation and efficiency. These include $2,500 tax credits for the purchase of hybrid and highly fuel efficient vehicles and $3 billion for research and development of biofuels and to improve vehicle fuel efficiency. As the country slowly learned with corn ethanol, there must be safeguards to ensure this funding doesn’t unnecessarily promote fuel development over better uses of crops. Turning waste products, such as the wood scrap from lumber and paper mills, into fuel is an area of promise.

More immediately, the bill includes additional funding to weatherize the homes of low-income residents in Maine and other states.

The bill’s backers — 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats — say all of this can be paid for by eliminating loopholes and changes in how oil and gas companies are taxed. Ensuring those offsets become reality is necessary before approving large new government expenditures.

This bill sets a reasonable course at a time when the country needs a multifaceted energy policy.

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