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Lake Erie believed off limits to drilling under Bush plan

COLUMBUS - President Bush's energy proposal may have taken nuclear power out of the doghouse, but don't expect a permit to build a plant anytime soon in Ohio.

His plan may step up pressure to drill for oil and natural gas, but Lake Erie is not expected to be immediately threatened.

Environmentalists say there is not much in the plan that would lead them to believe there will soon be windmills dotting the horizon or more solar panels in building designs either.

There may, however, be more demand for Ohio coal and less environmental pressure on coal-fired plants, which generate 88 percent of Ohio's power. An old idea of building plants to refine Ohio's abundant corn supply into ethanol may be revived.

“We have been rudderless on our energy ship, and the President is going ahead to guide it with an intelligent balance of exploration and conservation,” said state Rep. Lynn Olman (R., Maumee), chairman of the House Public Utilities Commission. “They don't have to be separate from one another,” he said.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Mr. Bush's plan is the opening of protected federal land, including a protected wildlife refuge in Alaska, to oil and gas drilling.

“It starts on a large scale and filters down to Ohio,” said Tom Stewart, executive director of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, which represents 1,300 independent producers. “In Ohio, we have areas that are restricted by the federal government like the Wayne National Forest [in the southeast],” he said. “They have been drilling in Washington, Noble, and Monroe counties since the Civil War, but since the national forest was created, it's been very difficult to get new drilling.”

Although predictions on the direct impact on Ohio are mixed, most agree Ohio consumers would benefit from more energy production, even if it occurs in Alaska rather than Ohio.

President Bush's budget proposal for next year cuts funds for research into renewable energy sources. His energy plan, however, proposes tax breaks for people who buy energy-efficient vehicles and increased grants for the poor to insulate their homes.

“It was a baby-step in the right direction,” said Bryan Clark of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group, a consumer and environmental watchdog organization. “When you look at the history of tax incentives in the energy sector between 1948 and 1998, $100 billion has gone into polluting energy and a fifth of that on renewable energy. Bush continues that.”

The plan calls for streamlining the process of gaining permits for nuclear power plants and a closer look at the disposal problem for waste generated by them. “No matter what the administration tries to do, there will be no new nuclear power plants in the United States,” said Mr. Clark. “It's not cost-effective without the ratepayers propping up the profits.”

Ralph DiNicola, spokesman for the plant provider FirstEnergy, applauded the renewed interest in nuclear power, which accounts for about 35 percent of the power it produces. FirstEnergy is the parent company of Toledo Edison, Ohio Edison, and Cleveland Electric Illuminating.

“Davis-Besse is one of the best-operating nuclear plants in the world,” he said. “If the government believes nuclear power, which emits no air pollutants, is a favored source of electricity, then it needs to resolve the disposal issue. If a decision is made to build, it won't occur for a decade or more.” The bulk of the company's power is produced by coal; one of its plants has been sued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for violating the Clean Air Act.

With rising prices, market forces are turning in favor of more natural gas production in the state, but everyone appears to concede that drilling will not take place in Lake Erie, at least for now.

“Lake Erie provides the drinking water for about half of the population of the United States, which, apart from the environmental concerns, makes it a little different from the gulf or ocean,” said Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Port Clinton). “Senator Voinovich, Senator DeWine, and Governor Taft are opposed to drilling, which is different from Alaska where there is overwhelming local support. The opposition comes from environmental groups.”

Even gas producers agree Lake Erie is probably off limits, even though they hunger for the resources locked beneath. “It's not going to happen because of the general fear that kind of activity might cause damage,” said Mr. Stewart.

Although consumers may complain about high heating bills and gasoline prices, Ohio has been able to keep the lights on. “Ohio currently has about 11.6 percent reserve at peak levels,” said Mr. Olman. “That's fine for now, but as we continue to grow, we have to prepare for the growth in the demand for electricity if we don't want our future to be what California is facing.”

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