Bush's fractured fairy tale

With the president's energy plan, no matter how much coal we burn, the sky will always be blue.

Published May 21, 2001 4:53PM (EDT)

Forgive me if this column feels a little rushed, but after listening to the president introduce his new energy plan, I'm hurrying to get it done before the lights go out and my computer runs out of juice. "If we fail to act, this great country could face a darker future," Bush warned ominously. "If we fail to act, Americans will face more and more widespread blackouts. If we fail to act, our country will become more reliant on foreign crude oil, putting our national energy security into the hands of foreign nations."

He was on a gloom-and-doom roll: "If we fail to act on this plan, energy prices will continue to rise ... We're not just short of oil, we're short of the refineries that turn oil into fuel ... A single accident, a single shutdown can send prices of gasoline and heating oil spiraling all over the country."

It was the bleakest forecast since the weather guy on Radio Pompeii predicted: "Morning ash, molten lava and toxic sulfur fumes, followed by widely scattered death and destruction."

The strategy is clear: Scare us out of our wits and let the Arctic drilling begin!

And it's working. According to the latest polls, the number of Americans who consider energy a top concern soared from 3 percent in March to 21 percent two months later, with 53 percent of us now convinced that the country is in the midst of an "energy crisis."

Using fear to sell questionable policies is fast becoming a Bush administration hallmark. If you'll recall, he sold his tax cut as a necessary measure to "jump-start" the economy and prevent the nation from sliding into a recession. "We need tax relief now," he insisted. "In fact, we need tax relief yesterday ... A warning light is flashing on the dashboard of our economy, and we can't just drive on and hope for the best."

And now, in a tribute to his single-mindedness or, rather, a monument to his narrow-mindedness, the president has decided that the answer to the energy "crisis" is -- guess what? -- a tax cut. Cue the Who: "Meet the new solution; same as the old solution." The question is: Will we get fooled again?

"The quickest way to help people with their energy bills is tax relief," said Bush at a White House news conference. "If I had my way, I'd have it in place tomorrow so that people would have money in their pockets to deal with high energy prices."

It wasn't so long ago that Bush was trashing the Democrats for their "targeted tax cuts." Now his signature proposal has morphed into the ultimate targeted cut. What happened to all the rhetoric about trusting "the good people of America to spend their own money, to meet their own priorities?" Now he's directing us to spend it at the gas pump -- helping to line the pockets of his pals in the energy industry. They can then turn around and gratefully give large chunks of it to the Bush reelection campaign, thus maintaining their status as one of his top contributors. It's like a perpetual motion machine -- just what's needed for an "energy crisis."

What is particularly ironic is that a conservative administration, which preeningly promised to bring integrity back to the White House, has taken to pooh-poohing personal behavior -- indeed, personal virtue -- as irrelevant to serious matters of public policy. "Conservation," sniffed Vice President Cheney earlier this month, "may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound comprehensive energy policy."

Of course, this is the same administration that has also eschewed any talk of personal sacrifice as an element of a wise and sustainable energy policy. "Conservation does not mean doing without," insisted the president. Actually, Mr. President, it means precisely that.

But in Bush's America, the one that will exist as soon as we build a few thousand more power plants, drill for oil in a few more national parks and squeeze a few more kilowatts out of our nuclear waste, we'll be able to have our gas-guzzling SUVs and drive them too -- over rolling green hills and across pristine rivers, leaving the windows open so we can breathe in the fresh, clean air. And when the entire earth heats up, we'll just save that much more on our energy bills.

Amazingly enough, according to the president, we're going to achieve this glorious state by easing environmental regulations and offering more tax incentives to the $700 billion energy industry -- as though the current windfall of massive profits isn't enough to stimulate more power production. So much for trusting the free market.

In the end, the 163-page energy report -- aka "The World According to Dick" -- is a curious combination of Chicken Little and Pollyanna, with lots of pretty color pictures. In this fractured fairy tale, the sky is falling, but no matter how much coal we burn, it will always be blue.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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Energy George W. Bush