The good news is that the U.S. Senate breathed new life a few days ago into a far-reaching but long-stalled bill that would set this nation's energy policy well into the next century.
The bad news is that a short-sighted filibuster against the measure was broken only by abandoning some of the bill's key provisions, including those that would have required stiffer fuel efficiency standards for cars, allowed oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and promoted the recycling of used oil.What folly! Carmakers, including Chrysler, have improved fuel efficiency without suffering the economic losses feared by opponents of the move. Oil drilling could be done in the wildlife refuge without undue harm to the environment, as was demonstrated when environmentalists' fears about the consequences of the trans-Alaska pipeline turned out to be pure fiction. Moreover, the extent to which Washington shuns energy conservation is the extent to which it stints on potential major savings in reducing oil use and in reducing the deficit in America's international balance of payments.
But so be it. The damage has been done and there's no point in crying about it. Further efforts to repair the harm can always be attempted later. Meanwhile, the challenge is to salvage as much as possible from the current effort to produce a national energy policy. The salvage operation won't be easy since the bill's remaining provisions still arouse plenty of controversy.
One of those provisions would streamline the approval of new natural gas pipelines, making it easier to bring abundant supplies of natural gas to markets now dependent on oil. Opponents equate less red tape with more damage to the environment. But other nations have proved that government regulation can be careful without being ponderously slow.
The most controversial part of the bill is a proposal for one-step licensing of new nuclear power plants.
As it is now, utilities are required to get two permits from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission - one to build a plant and the second to operate it. It's no coincidence that the United States, burdened with this extra handicap, has not built a new nuclear power plant since the early 1970s while other nations make much greater use of this source of energy - and do so safely.
Specifically, the United States generates only 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. By contrast, France generates 74 percent, Sweden 47 percent, Japan 28 percent and Belgium 65 percent.
For the United States to become more competitive on this score, Americans simply must get over their exaggerated fears about the danger of nuclear power. Its relative safety was confirmed by a 1990 study by the National Cancer Institute. After studying nuclear power plants in 107 countries, the institute found no evidence of increased risk of cancer among people living near nuclear power plants. Indeed, the only Americans to die in the commercial generation of nuclear energy have been workers inside the power plants - and these few deaths have been mostly attributable to accidents having nothing to do with radiation.
Now consider another telling set of figures. As recently as 1990, the United States had to rely on foreign sources for 42 percent of all the oil it needed. Now the figure is up to 50 percent. In another two decades, according to projections from the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, the figure will be at 75 percent - unless present patterns of consumption and production are altered.
America can't reduce its unhealthy reliance on too much foreign energy without increasing both its own conservation and its own output, including the output of nuclear power. The proposed limits on red tape can help. But the help won't be enough unless limits on how often and how long the paranoid can stymie power projects in the regulatory agencies are accompanied by limits on repeated lawsuits against such projects and constant foot-dragging in the courts.