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Running out of juice

Despite the hype, there's no sign that the Congress will produce an energy bill worthy of the formidable energy-policy challenges faced by the United States.

Suppose that one was charged with the task of framing US energy legislation from scratch, without the political baggage that has accumulated over several years' unsuccessful efforts to push such a law through the Congress.

One top priority, endorsed at both ends of the political spectrum, would undoubtedly be to reduce the United States' large and growing reliance on imported oil. Another — which unfortunately benefits from no such political consensus — would be to stabilize and then to reduce the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions. A third priority would be to support a balanced programme of energy-related research and development at a level commensurate with the massive scale of the US energy business, not to mention its long-term strategic importance.

A range of options for tackling these pressing concerns were spelt out robustly last year in the final report of the independently funded, bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy (see

The bill obstinately declines to take seriously the need to cut carbon emissions.

But judging from the version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives last month, none of these concerns are being properly addressed by the Congress. For a start, the bill obstinately declines to take seriously the need to cut carbon emissions. It does nothing to contain the demand for oil through the most obvious mechanism, the imposition of modest fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. And it fails to authorize any substantial revival in energy research spending, which has been steadily run down from its peak in the aftermath of the 1974 energy crisis.

The Senate is this week releasing a measure that will purport to look at the bigger picture. A bipartisan bill being put forward jointly by Senator Pete Domenici (Republican, New Mexico) and Jeff Bingaman (Democrat, New Mexico) will take a more broadly based approach than the House bill, and boost spending on some aspects of energy research.

But even the Senate seems to lack the will to seriously confront the consequences of the US addiction to oil imports. The bill will provide generous subsidies for clean coal and nuclear-power generation, and less generous ones for renewable energy sources. But in a country where about two-thirds of energy use is for transportation, it seems unlikely to bite the bullet and take steps to reduce oil consumption. The Senate could start to address this by, for example, promoting new cellulose-based biofuels (not to be confused with the existing ethanol programme, which is designed primarily as a subsidy machine for corn farmers). It could also yet decide to insist on new fuel-efficiency standards.

But many leaders in the Congress seem to prefer to squabble over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, rather than address the issue of oil consumption. The impression continues to grow that the president and congressional leaders want to win on the Alaskan refuge primarily to rile environmentalists, rather than to obtain oil. Oil companies are barely registering an interest, the political and economic costs being so high.

As is usual for legislation of this type, the House bill is laden with goodies for special interests, including some $2 billion for deep gas drilling, subsidies for those keen to build nuclear power stations, and various tax breaks. But even the corporate giveaways — which are valued by some critics at $8 billion over ten years — are paltry by Washington's standards of profligacy. This is further proof, if any were needed, that political leaders just haven't grasped the scale of the problem.

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Running out of juice. Nature 435, 247 (2005).

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