SYNOPSIS: The Bush energy plan is more handouts for a sector that hardly needs them.
Who knew that Dick Cheney had such a sense of humor?
He had us rolling in the aisles after the famous put-down in which he dismissed energy conservation as nothing more than a "sign of personal virtue." But the joke got much better Thursday, with the release of the administration's energy plan. Just for laughs, Mr. Cheney threw in a few mock conservation measures. Topping the list was a tax credit for — get this — people who purchase hybrid gas-electric cars.
In case you don't quite get the joke: during the campaign one of George W. Bush's favorite gag lines involved making fun of Al Gore's proposal for — you guessed it — a tax credit for purchase of hybrid cars. It got big laughs because it symbolized his opponent's supposed preoccupation with trivialities. Now, in a fine satirical gesture, Mr. Cheney has made the very same proposal his lead conservation measure. Take that, you wimps!
It seems that the pundits, having misjudged Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney during the campaign, have done it again. We now know that the moderate rhetoric Mr. Bush used during the campaign was insincere; but it turns out that the administration's libertarian rhetoric during the selling of the tax cut was equally insincere. These guys don't believe in free markets: what they're really into is heavy metal. Refineries! Pipelines! Nuclear power plants! That's the stuff!
To justify their lust for tubular steel, Mr. Cheney and his collaborators have gone to great lengths to fabricate an energy crisis — and they have also suddenly decided that free markets don't work after all. "Estimates," says the report, "indicate that over the next 20 years U.S. oil consumption will increase by 33 percent." Whose estimates? We are never told. But that's an awfully high number. In the 20 years ending in 1999, the last year for which official data are available, oil consumption rose less than 5 percent. All I can figure is that Mr. Cheney's people are extrapolating from the abrupt decline in automobile fuel efficiency over the last few years, as people have switched from ordinary cars to S.U.V.'s. And what they are saying is that we should base our energy policy on the assumption that this quite recent trend will continue unabated for decades.
This doesn't have to happen. In fact, it isn't going to happen, even in the absence of any serious conservation measures. To burn as much oil as the Cheney report says we need, everyone who still drives a mere car would have to acquire an S.U.V., and everyone who now drives an S.U.V. would have to start driving something the size of a Sherman tank
. What's behind Mr. Cheney's greasy math? It goes without saying that he wants to scare us into relaxing environmental regulation. But there's more: the Cheney plan provides an array of subsidies, explicit and implicit, for energy producers. Indeed, the libertarian Cato Institute calls the plan a "smorgasbord of handouts and subsidies for virtually every energy lobby in Washington." Strange, isn't it? If you're a low- paid worker, or an energy consumer, the free market is sacrosanct — it would be a terrible thing if government provided you with any assistance. But energy producers apparently need special encouragement to do their regular job.
In fact, of course, they don't. Mr. Cheney loves to talk about our alleged need to build a new power plant every week for the next 20 years, implying that this is a herculean task that can only be accomplished with a lot of help from Washington. But high prices have already sparked a huge construction boom in the power industry, which will add three or four plants per week for the next few years. As some wags have put it, if the power industry wants to meet Mr. Cheney's target it will have to slow down its building program.
The truth is that the administration has things exactly the wrong way around. It claims that we face a long-run energy crisis, and that there are no short-term answers. The reality is that in the long run the forces of supply and demand will take care of our energy needs, with or without Mr. Cheney's expensive new program of corporate welfare. What we need is a strategy to deal with the temporary problem of sky-high prices and huge windfall profits. But we're not going to get it, at least not from Washington.
Originally published in The New York Times, 5.20.01