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Stopping and Starting on Energy

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

It's a day for stopping things on energy policy. Initial reports say BP's stream of mud has halted the disastrous Gulf oil spill (at left: the cleanup in Louisiana), but it's too soon to say if this fix will hold. President Obama meanwhile has announced a six-month halt to new drilling permits while a special panel examines the rig accident.

The oil spill cleanup, near Grand Isle, Louisiana.

But one thing that we've all learned in the past few weeks is that it's much easier to start an oil spill than to stop one and much easier to stop an energy policy than to get one moving. Witness, for example, the prospects for energy and climate legislation, which have dimmed as the Gulf spill upsets the delicate web of political compromises built into the bill. At the same time, public support for drilling remains high, even as people follow news of the spill closely.

Yet there are opportunities as well, as shown by the administration's move to improve fuel-efficiency standards on cars, and extend them to heavy trucks as well. And there should be an opportunity for a better discussion on the broader energy issues we face. Deciding whether or not offshore drilling is too risky is just one piece of a very large puzzle.

Oil means transportation, and we import nearly 60 percent of what we need. And of course, oil produces greenhouse gases. There are alternatives to oil, and Nissan says already has 19,000 orders for its new Leaf electric car. That's a promising start, but there are 250 million motor vehicles on American roads. It's going to take a while for new options to take hold, which means that we're going to be using oil for a long time to come.

Part of the challenge is putting the options and the realities on the table. In the end, there aren't so many choices on energy, and the pros and cons of each are pretty clear. It's having the conversation that's the real problem. It's that opportunity the chance to have the public weigh alternatives and move up the "learning curve" on this problem that needs to be seized.


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