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February 2, 2006; Page A10
President Bush has seen the energy future, and he has two words of advice: wood chips. Somewhere in his cardigan sweater next to a fireplace, Jimmy Carter is smiling.
That gets to the uncomfortable heart of Mr. Bush's startling turn on energy policy Tuesday night. An Administration that once promoted drilling in Alaska and other ways to expand domestic oil and gas supplies is now lecturing the nation that it's “addicted to oil” and extolling the merits of cellulosic biomass, a k a wood chips. This may not be as bad as 1970s-style price controls, but it's also a long way from a sensible energy policy.
If there is an unhealthy addiction right now, it may be the White House fixation on polls showing Americans are anxious about gas prices. This, and only this, could explain the decision to co-opt Democratic energy ideas in order to deflect their political attacks in the run-up to mid-term elections. Karl Rove may believe he needs to do this to save a Republican Congress in November, but nobody should think it's going to do much for energy supplies or prices.
For starters, this perpetuates the myth that America can somehow swear off oil. Mr. Bush was careful not to use the words “energy independence,” though his promise to replace more than 75% of oil imports from the Middle East by 2025 is as big a leap of faith. As the nearby chart shows, all sources of “renewable” energy combined supply just 3.3% of U.S. energy needs. There are limits on what solar or wind energy can provide or how much ethanol we can produce. Save for a miracle in cold fusion, fossil fuels including Mideast oil will be with us for decades to come.
Mr. Bush's proposed subsidies may be small, but he has started a political bidding war that will prove very costly before it's done. Every energy lobbyist with a K Street address will be lining up for another tax or spending subsidy: synthetic fuels, biodiesel, wind farms and, the granddaddy of them all, ethanol. That subsidy used to be limited to corn farmers, but Mr. Bush opened the door to make the fuel from cane sugar and switch grass. And this for a fuel that has been heavily subsidized since the 1970s and still can't pull its own market weight.
Mr. Bush's comparison of oil to a narcotic was especially inapt, as if Americans who drive SUVs are somehow sinners. Those are his own exurban voters Mr. Bush is talking about. The truth is that America is twice as energy efficient as it was 50 years ago, and some of the greatest gains have come during periods of high oil prices. Yet some of the same politicians calling for limits on oil use now are those who happily basked in 80-cent-a-gallon gasoline in the 1990s.
The market is similarly working to increase supply, at least where the government allows. One overlooked energy story is the extraordinary capital the oil industry is sinking into new production. Oil sands in Canada's Alberta province hold 175 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia's estimated 260 billion. Shell Canada chief Clive Mather recently suggested there could be as many as two trillion barrels. Today's high prices make it economical to extract oil from sand, and Canada's oil sands are already producing a million barrels a day. Yet, remarkably enough, Mr. Bush made no reference at all to the limits that Congress has imposed on drilling in the Arctic, or in the Outer Continental Shelf, where there are vast non-Mideast oil and gas reserves.
About the only idea Mr. Bush didn't steal from the liberal playbook was a call for greater fuel efficiency standards. But give it time: The “addiction” line will surely jumpstart calls for precisely those types of limits on consumer choice. Such rhetoric will also add to the political clamor for another gas tax, although with today's high prices this has so far been a political non-starter.
At least Mr. Bush bothered to mention nuclear energy, which is the only realistic substitute to fossil fuels short of a technological breakthrough. Then again, this country hasn't built a new nuclear plant since the 1970s, and the recent flurry of companies seeking licenses for new reactors has sent environmental activists around the bend. Companies have faced similar difficulties building new terminals to import liquified natural gas, a substitute for home heating oil.
The truth is that many green groups, and the political liberals who follow them, don't object to imported oil because it comes from the Middle East. They are opposed to fossil fuels, and nuclear energy for that matter, on principle. They want to live in a world that runs on wood chips, and it's hardly useful to have a conservative President telling the country he agrees with them.

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