Give Bush credit for his energy proposal.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Jan. 29 2007 3:07 PM

What the President Got Right

Give Bush credit for his energy proposal.

(Continued from Page 1)

Now U.S. oil consumption has risen back to 20 million barrels daily, and the pattern of consumption has shifted. In the 1970s, about half of oil use was for transportation, the other half for heating, industry, and electricity generation. Now three-quarters of oil use is for transportation: Petroleum demand for cars, trucks, trains, and planes has gone way up, while petroleum demand in other sectors has been flat or declined. The reason for rising petroleum demand for cars and trucks is that Americans today own twice as many cars and trucks as they did 30 years ago and drive them nearly three times as many miles. Yet since 1988, fuel economy standards have not toughened.

The likely result of the White House proposal for tougher standards would be a replay of the first big mileage improvement—U.S. petroleum demand would fall, reducing greenhouse gases and reducing the political influence of Persian Gulf dictatorships. How can the New York Times possibly think that would represent only a "marginal" improvement?

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While endorsing the first CAFE strengthening since the oil embargo, Bush also called for a law mandating a fivefold increase in U.S. ethanol production in the next decade and requiring refineries to blend more ethanol into gasoline. There's a lot to debate about ethanol—its value can be questioned, but that's another article. Let's assume for the sake of argument that a big jump in ethanol production is a good idea. In assuming this, we will join the New York Times editorial board and Thomas Friedman, both of whom lavishly praised last fall's Proposition 87, a California referendum mostly designed to boost ethanol production. Friedman said California would "make history" if it passed the proposition. * A Times editorial called this and other California green-energy proposals "pathbreaking."

For good or ill, California voters rejected Prop 87. But suppose it and other California mpg initiatives had gone into effect: Projections suggest petroleum consumption in California would over a period of years have declined about 25 percent. Suppose Bush's mpg and ethanol proposals go into effect: Projections suggest petroleum consumption in the United States will decline about 20 percent. How come a California plan to cut oil use 25 percent in one state is brilliant, while a White House plan to cut oil use 20 percent across the entire country is insignificant?

It's true that last week Bush did not endorse any mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases, and the time for such restrictions has come. Many who reacted negatively to the Bush plan were really saying they were upset that Bush did not offer a plan to reduce the odds of artificial global warming. Yet Bush did offer the most important oil-use reduction proposal since 1975, and reducing petroleum consumption will cut greenhouse-gas emissions somewhat. Bush's energy critics seem to say that because he did not give them everything they wanted, any major concession he did offer must be deplored. But stricter federal mpg rules would lead to far-reaching changes in American oil-consumption curves and American automobile culture. Give Bush some credit!

Less than a week after botching its coverage of the mpg improvements Bush proposed, the New York Times banner-headlined a story saying Saudi Arabia now wants to keep petroleum prices relatively low at $50 a barrel. Have the oil sheiks decided they are making too much money? The sheiks don't want the United States taking real action to reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf oil, so they hope to lull Capitol Hill into thinking oil will stay cheap and mpg improvements won't be needed. The media may not have understood Bush's mileage proposal. The Saudi princes surely did.

Correction, Jan. 30:The original version of this piece implied that California's Proposition 87 would have served only to boost ethanol production. In fact, the law proposed support for other alternative fuels. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Gregg Easterbrook is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.

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