Who Wants More Power Plants?

The recent precipitous drop in George W. Bush's approval rating is by no means the worst news for the White House. After all, presidential approval ratings tend to have more ups and downs than a roller coaster filled with manic-depressives.

No, what should have Karl Rove and Karen Hughes waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night are the recent polls showing not just that the public overwhelmingly supports energy conservation efforts over the massive build-up of new power plants but that Republicans do as well. By a ratio of more than two-to-one.

And a core group of disgruntled Republicans are not just ritually shaking their heads - they're speaking out. "It's a shame that a conservative administration had to be badgered into talking positively about efficiency," says Jim Scarantino, executive director of Republicans for Environmental Protection.

The group rails against the energy plan's "lack of an aggressive energy efficiency strategy" -- a failure that repudiates a Republican tradition dating back to the days of Teddy Roosevelt, who put conservation at the heart of his agenda and his legacy.

"The movement for the conservation of wildlife," Roosevelt wrote in 1916, "and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources, are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose and method."

One hundred years after TR took office, a defiantly conservative administration has sent to Congress a plan that is so pathetically indifferent, even hostile, to conservation it does not even address the single biggest and most obvious step we can take to conserve energy: increasing auto fuel-efficiency standards.

The Bush plan merely recommends further "study" of the issue -- traditionally the junkyard for change and innovation -- sidestepping the need to require SUVs and pickups, which now account for nearly 50 percent of the vehicles sold in America, to meet the same mileage requirements as cars.

Instead, in an effort to soften his hard-earned "let them drink arsenic" image, the president has taken to photo-op environmentalism. Like his recent wide-eyed walk through a Department of Energy showcase of energy-saving devices, including a state-of-the-art cell phone charger.

"When you multiply the number of chargers plugged into people's walls all across America," the president enthused, "one can begin to realize significant savings all across the country." By golly, one certainly can. One can also recommend "further study."

After the tour, Bush grandly announced over $85 million in grants aimed at encouraging the development of technologies linked to renewable energy. Sure it sounds good, but the problem is the grants simply restored the $85 million in funding for renewable energy the president had previously recommended cutting.

The other problem is that $85 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the roughly $1.36 billion in tax incentives, credits and deductions handed out to his buddies in the coal, oil and gas industries. These, apparently, did not need further study.

And to put in perspective just how frivolous the size of the grants are, California alone has set aside 10 times as much, $850 million, just in monetary incentives for consumers who purchase energy efficient appliances.

As Alan Nogee of the Union of Concerned Scientists put it: "Energy efficiency and renewable energy could replace nearly 1,000 of the 1,300 new power plants that President Bush says are needed to meet increasing energy needs. America does not face a shortage of energy supplies, just a shortage of vision, leadership and determination to provide clean and affordable energy."

Despite the Bush administration's highly effective effort to conserve its very limited supplies of vision, leadership and determination -- and despite widespread skepticism about whether there really is a power shortage -- the public has responded beyond all expectations to the call for conservation.

In California, ground zero for the current energy crisis, conservation efforts have reduced demand for electricity for the second month in a row. Electricity use in June was down over 12 percent from last year, following an 11 percent drop in May.

Not surprisingly, Gov. Gray Davis -- who has spent much of the last few months dithering while the energy crisis burned -- rushed to take credit for the drop in energy usage. As if he's been running up and down the state, turning up thermostats and turning off light switches.

Of course, the alternative to being a one-man switch-flipping brigade would be finding a way to spark the public's imagination -- but when it comes to sparking the public's imagination, Gray Davis is no Gary Condit.

While there's no doubt consumers are looking to avoid mammoth power bills, the fervor with which they have embraced voluntary conservation efforts can' t be explained solely on grounds of self-interest. In fact, it demonstrates the depth of the American people's untapped reserves of commitment to the public good, even when their leaders are clearly entirely tapped out.

It is truly ironic that one of those on the cutting edge of consumer conservation is W himself, whose ranch in Crawford, Texas, has been described as "an environmentally sensitive showplace" designed with "state-of-the-art energy efficiency." The house is filled with energy-saving devices, while the ranch's lawn and fruit orchard are irrigated with recycled water. He's acting locally, he just can't think globally.

One can't help but wonder: Is this a deeply felt personal commitment of W's that, at the national level, is overwhelmed by his even more deeply felt commitment to his friends and donors in the energy industry?

Isn't it time that Bush starts preaching to the nation what he practices back at the ranch?

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