Ah, California. The state where you can drive your SUV while dishing President Bush for wanting to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. The state where voters can knock Bush for flip-flopping on a campaign promise to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, even as they demand that electric rates run below cost. The state motto should be: "Heat free or die."
Vice President Dick Cheney had a few choice words for Californians when we talked on the phone Friday: "Coal, natural gas or nuclear." Those are the three basic ways to power the electricity -- like it or not. "There's no magic wand," said Cheney to California. "We can't write a check and solve your problem." The answer is more power plants.
While environmentalists and editorial writers have slammed Bush for going back on the carbon dioxide pledge, it would make more sense to fault Bush for making the pledge in the first place. Energy blackouts already had occurred when Bush made the pledge. With his background, he should have known better than to impose emission caps on coal-burning power plants with electricity shortages looming.
Cheney recognizes that natural gas is America's power-plant fuel of choice. But new supplies have declined while demand has spiked. A lack of pipelines makes it difficult to move the fuel. There may be a limit as to how many new plants can rely on a steady supply of natural gas.
Then there's nuclear -- a.k.a. Satan -- in the Golden State, even though nuclear power plants don't spew out nasty emissions. Cheney pointed out, "A lot of the same folks who don't want carbon emissions don't want nuclear power plants."
Apparently, Cheney just doesn't get it. This is California, where people demand cheap,
clean energy -- and if folks from other states don't like subsidizing us, well, they'll just have to grin and bear it. For the sake of the national economy. The bottom line: Size matters. California is big enough that it can push around other states.
The administration is right to focus on supply. In the long run, more power plants are the clear solution. Still, there are three areas where Team Bush could improve.
One. Price gouging. Asked if price gouging is occurring, Cheney answered: "There's no way for me to make a judgment. How do you define price gouging?" Cheney trusted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to punish "unjustified" costs. With officials charging that Californians have been overcharged to the tune of $6.2 bil, Cheney should find the answers.
Two. Demand. The California approach to the demand dilemma is to point at other people and decide what they shouldn't be doing. The Bush approach is to not mention demand. Cheney discussed paying people to use less power, an approach that resembles the trading of pollution credits to reduce smog. It's a beginning. Bush could wow enviros if he changed fuel-efficiency standards so that cars and SUVs use less gas. This would not help the power shortage, but would reduce CO2 emissions. Since Bush has decided to protect coal-burning power plants, only Detroit can help him reduce CO2.
Three. Use your land. While Cheney spoke of the limited role of the federal government in California's energy situation, Team Bush could offer to lease federal lands -- deserted Army bases, for instance -- to utilities so that they can build mega-plants on industrialized land. Tell NIMBYs: Better a power plant than a casino.
In return, perhaps Californians could wise up. You have to wonder if Cheney's nuclear proposition was designed to send a wake-up call to the state. The message: You are plugged into the Net, but don't like plant emissions. You like natural gas, but devised laws that have limited access to it. There's just one way to please you people. Go nuke, dudes.