Foolish Mandates Would Make for an Unsound Energy Bill

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Few issues have as direct a bearing on peoples' well-being as energy policy. A bad energy policy can hamper economic growth and cost American workers jobs. As Congress wrestles with a new national energy bill, legislators should remove provisions under consideration that would do more harm than good.

For instance, some in Congress are trying to hijack the energy bill to fight global warming. Their provisions would set mandatory caps on the emission of Carbon-Dioxide (CO2) from power plants. There is no good argument for mandating reduced CO2 emissions since it is neither a pollutant nor is it toxic at any foreseeable atmospheric levels. Indeed, CO2 occurs naturally and is critical for life.

Further, even if the U.S. cut its greenhouse gas emissions to levels required by the Kyoto Protocol and all of the other nations meet their greenhouse gas reduction targets, the temperature difference would amount to less than a half degree reduction. This negligible reduction carries a high price tag: an estimated 50 percent increase in energy prices, a 1 percent loss in GDP, and a million jobs lost.

Other legislators are attempting to dictate consumers' energy choices by requiring utilities to ensure that up to 20 percent of their power comes from a preferred renewable energy source within 15 years. If, as most people hope, the U.S. benefits from regular economic growth during the next 20 years, electricity demand could increase by more than 45 percent. However, the best estimates indicate that power from sources like wind and solar farms will provide less than 10 percent of our energy needs during the next 50 years. As a result, wind and solar energy mandates could condemn the nation to California style blackouts.

Despite continued government subsidies, wind and solar power are expensive. Indeed, new solar-power capacity is triple the cost of new gas-generated electricity and quadruple the cost of surplus power; and new wind power cost 50 to 100 percent more than new gas-generated electricity and surplus power. And, both wind and solar power are intermittent -- wind turbines only work when the wind blows and solar arrays only work when the sun shines. Thus both types of plants must have back-up, traditional, fossil fuel power plants - an expensive redundancy.

Additionally, both solar and wind farms consume large areas. When they are sited in undeveloped or wild areas, the power plants detract from the environmental values of the area. When they are sited near developed areas, the result is visual blight, and with wind power, noise pollution. These factors are making it increasingly difficult for government planners to site new wind and solar farms. Wind and solar power technologies may turn out to be helpful in the future, but to mandate their use before they are technologically and economically feasible makes no sense.

Various lawmakers are also pushing to increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard. CAFE failed to reduce America's reliance on foreign oil. While today's automobiles and trucks do get significantly better gas mileage than those in the 1970s, oil imports have risen from 35 percent in 1974 to more than 52 percent today.

Improved fuel economy and declines in oil prices made automobiles significantly less expensive to drive and when driving is cheap, people drive more -- on average, twice as many miles at present than they did when CAFE was enacted.

However, Americans have suffered from CAFE. Researchers at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution found that for every 100 pounds shaved off new cars to meet CAFE standards, between 440 and 780 additional people were killed in auto accidents - or a total of 2,200 to 3,900 lives lost per model year. And USA Today calculated that current CAFE standards had resulted in more than 46,000 deaths.

Government energy mandates may make certain radical environmentalists happy, but for the average Joe, they simply mean less money and fewer choices. Congress should serve the general public, rather than a narrow constituency, and not include mandates in a national energy policy.