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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2001

U.S. needs a balanced energy policy

Environmentalists don't want to build nuclear power plants. They don't want to build plants fired by coal, oil, or natural gas, either. Environmentalists even want to tear down dams that generate hydroelectric power. They get in the way of the fish.

Environmentalists don't want to build oil refineries - it's been 25 years since a major one was built in the United States - and don't want to mine for coal or drill for oil or natural gas anywhere within our borders, even in the Arctic, where there are more polar bears than people.

There are lots of environmentalists in California. You can tell by the brownouts. No new electric power plants have been built in California in the last 10 years, even though demand for electricity has grown by 24 percent.

There will be more brownouts in California this summer, when demand for electric power typically increases. And, presumably, there will be fewer environmentalists. Sometimes the lights have to go out in people's homes before they start going on in people's heads.

The rest of us had better learn a lesson quickly from California's travail. The NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude is by no means restricted to the Golden State, and we're paying a price.

We now import 55 percent of the petroleum we use, a figure expected to rise to 64 percent within 20 years. In 1973, when the Arab oil embargo crippled our economy, only 36 percent of our oil came from foreign sources.

Natural gas is our cleanest burning fossil fuel. It accounts for 25 percent of all the energy we use. And unlike oil, there is lots of natural gas still in North America. But not an infinite amount. Proven reserves last year were 6 percent lower than in 1997, and consumers got a nasty shock this winter when they opened their natural gas bills. Consumer prices have doubled in some places, and the wholesale price has increased by more than 300 percent.

The United States sits smack dab in the middle of an energy-rich continent. Yet we are on the verge of an energy crisis that could cripple our economy and endanger our national security.

The crisis struck first in California because Californians did something exceptionally stupid. California deregulated the price electric utilities have to pay for electricity from generating companies, but not the price utilities could charge to consumers. Utilities were forced to sell power for less than they paid for it. Even the biggest corporations eventually go broke selling at a loss.

Even if California's government starts now to do everything right, it will be years before there will be enough supply to meet demand without interruptions. And there are no indications Gov. Gray Davis is going to do anything right.

In the meantime, the Golden State will suffer substantial economic loss as companies that are dependent upon reliable sources of power gravitate to states where it can be found.

Thanks to new technologies and to the rising cost of fossil fuels, nuclear power has become the cheapest source of electricity. In 1999, electricity from nuclear plants averaged 1.83 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 2.07 cents for coal, 3.24 cents for oil, and 3.52 cents for natural gas.

There are 103 nuclear power plants in the United States. Unlike coal or oil-fired plants, they emit no pollutants. The National Cancer Institute has determined there is no increased risk of cancer for people who live near nuclear plants, and more people have died in Ted Kennedy's car than in nuclear accidents. Yet environmentalists continue to oppose them. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they continue to believe that all of our power needs can be supplied by some windmill somewhere.

We badly need a balanced energy policy. It would be one that emphasizes conservation and is respectful of environmental concerns. But it would recognize that we have not yet learned how to heat and cool our homes and offices, power our factories, and run our automobiles on the hot air generated by environmentalists.

Jack Kelly is a member of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail him at jkelly@post-gazette.com.



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