Energy conservation

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(HOST) Commentator Barrie Dunsmore observes that an idea once denigrated by the Bush White House has suddenly come back into fashion. It’s called energy conservation.

(DUNSMORE) First, President George W. Bush told Americans they should drive less. Then he told his White House staff mem- bers they should turn off their computers at night and come to work in car pools or use public transportation. Now we have Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman calling a news conference to exhort Americans to drive slower, insulate their houses and keep their thermostats down this winter.

All this from an administration that once dismissed conservation as perhaps, a sign of personal virtue, but it cannot be the basis for a sound, comprehensive, energy policy. That infamous quote by Vice President Cheney in 2001 is just too delicious to ignore be- cause it sums up how he and his boss the President, really felt about conservation. At the time, they had bigger and bolder ideas to secure America’s oil supplies – one of them apparently being invading Iraq. But just as the weapons of mass destruction, Iraqi oil turned out to be a mirage.

However, the disruption of gas and oil facilities in the Gulf of Mexi- co by hurricanes Katrina and Rita has sharply increased prices for energy and threatens to make it a very expensive winter, especi- ally for those of us up north. The weather – and the tightening of the world oil market as China becomes a major new energy consumer – are combining to virtually ensure that the price of energy is going to go up and up.

Still there is something missing in all this talk about energy conservation: it’s all voluntary – nothing mandatory. As a spokes- man for the environmental group Sierra Club put it, “They’re asking Americans to conserve, but they’re not asking the same from the auto industry and the oil industry.” Various other pro-environmen- tal groups have charged that the energy bill signed by the Presi- dent in August was a giveaway to the energy industry and con- tained few incentives for conservation. Consumer advocacy groups such as Public Citizen have argued that if the administration had truly been interested in conservation it would have increased funding for alternative fuels – and mandated a significant improvement in fuel efficiency for new cars and trucks.

Actually, with the price of a gallon of gas spiking to nearly $4 – as it did at my local station a few days after Katrina – the market may have begun to send a message to the auto companies. In figures released this week, industry-wide sales of SUVs were down 43 percent from a year earlier. And, as you might expect, sales of hybrid electric cars have increased dramatically – one popular model by 90%.

Perhaps, then, we have reached or are getting close to that tipping point when people are prepared to make real sacrifices to head off a long-term energy crisis which would have disastrous consequen- ces. If so, much more leadership will be required from those who, until very recently, treated conservation as if it were a dirty word.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

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