Policy Today magazine cover
October 5, 2005

The recently passed federal energy and highway bills have been celebrated for their bipartisan support, but is it at the expense of well-articulated policy goals?

With gas prices soaring, U.S. policymakers recently passed legislation meant to tackle the country's deepening energy crisis. The $12.3 billion energy bill was almost double its intended price. The federal highway bill rang up at $284 billion, boasting 6,371 special projects. The two massive appropriations bills—ostensibly designed to improve an aging highway infrastructure and wean the country from its dependence on (mostly imported) fossil fuels—offer insight into both policy and process.

"This is the fundamental problem we face on our mobile energy sources: We consume 21 million barrels of oil every day in this country, and we only produce eight. There is nothing we can do that is going to generate another 13 million barrels of oil within the confines of the United States of America," noted House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) in his speech presenting the conference report. With this in mind, legislators went about tackling the problem. "This is not a perfect bill, but it is a solid beginning to developing an energy strategy for the 21st century," says his colleague, Congressman John D. Dingell (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the committee. "It is a balanced product that will serve the country well."

Energy: from where and for how much?

The policy objectives at the beginning of the process seemed clear. "The bill's main objectives are to diversify America's energy supply, increase conservation and production, and employ innovative technologies to meet America's energy needs," says Bill Wicker, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Democratic Communications Director and staffer for New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). "In drafting and approving this bill, members shared a clear recognition that America needs a reliable and affordable energy supply."

The bill's development wasn't solely related to issues of supply and affordability, however. Bingaman's advocacy for greenhouse gas emission provisions in the bill brought many Senators to the table on what had previously been a thorny issue. Although the provisions didn't make it into the bill itself, the internal debate illustrates another element of the bill's objectives. "For the first time, a majority of the U.S. Senate agreed that the warming of our planet is real, that it's caused—at least in part—by human activities, and that mandatory limits on emissions will be required to deal with it," says Wicker. Clear and sensible enough.

Was this the vision we ordered?

"This energy bill will provide tax breaks to encourage certain energy-related activities, create some new entitlement programs to fund energy activities, and provide suggested spending levels for federal government energy-related programs," explains Kei Koizumi, American Association
for the Advancement of Science's R&D budget and policy analyst. "The bill closely follows the Bush Administration's energy policy objectives; it encourages greater supplies of fossil fuels and a few renewable sources such as nuclear energy, while putting far less emphasis on reducing demand for energy through conservation and other measures."

Koizumi understands these objectives, but questions whether the bill actually reaches them. "The ultimate goal is to reduce U.S. demand on foreign energy sources and to secure
U.S. energy supplies for the future, but the consensus is that the bill will do little to
achieve either," continues Koizumi. "The modest increases in energy supply that the bill may achieve will be swamped by projections of ever-increasing demand."

Bipartisan support and sound policy?

Legislators involved with the bill have made much of the bipartisan support it received in committee. When it came up for vote on the Senate floor in July, Bingaman—the ranking Democrat of the Senate Energy Committee—lauded the bipartisan support for the bill. "I am pleased that we are able to bring before the Senate a conference report on energy policy that is truly a product of bipartisan consensus," he said. "In conference, my colleague from New Mexico was adamant that we use an open and bipartisan process and it proved to work very well."

In this case, does "bipartisan consensus" equal a true fusion of objectives with an eye toward the finish line, or is it just a least-common-denominator policy that reflects an exchange of interests? Indeed, Congress' willingness to jettison any provisions that would obstruct the bill's passage may have only made it easier for weak legislation to get through under the guise of bipartisanship.

"Oil drilling in ANWR was placed on separate legislation, banning MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) or providing liability protection to oil companies for use of MTBE—which has been tied to ground water contamination—was largely untouched," says Paul Bledsoe of the National Commission on Energy Policy, commenting on the give-and-take nature of the process. "And these omissions proved pivotal for the bill's passage."

Some controversial provisions made it into the bill nonetheless, including a unique appropriations provision that establishes the "Ultra-Deepwater and Unconventional Natural Gas and Other Petroleum Research Fund" for research that will likely be conducted in Representative Tom Delay's district. But overall, the energy law, which is a large authorization bill with some key appropriations and tax relief provisions, reflects a serious give-and-take process, with all sides winning and losing on some issues. Why then, does it appear that the overarching vision was one of the biggest losers?

Running on empty, full speed ahead

Critics and supporters of the 2005 Energy Policy Act would both agree that its legislative course has significance beyond its noted incentives for the oil, gas and nuclear industry and new consumer protections. Its more dedicated proponents, who also focused on the supply side of the country's energy challenge, admit it will not remedy U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But even with support for the bill on both sides of the partisan isle, did the final product miss the point of the exercise?