Mob Psychology Makes Synfuel Boondoggle Hard to Stop

The massive multibillion dollar corporate subsidy bills for synthetic fuels (mostly from coal and shale oil) that are roaring through a panic-stricken Congress hide a far more insidious objective than wasting taxpayer money. An all-out attack on citizen rights to challenge these uneconomic and environmentally harmful boondoggles is designed to be part of this package deal.

This drive to roll back years of hard-won victories in the courts by taxpayers and consumers against corporate or bureaucratic lawlessness soon may be joined by President Jimmy Carter himself. His Department of Energy has been privately circulating memoranda calling for citizen rights cutbacks strikingly similar to bills in Congress introduced by Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Wash., and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and supported by many members of the House of Representatives.

The unpublicized Title Two of Jackson’s bill, S. 1308, is representative. Government designations of “priority energy projects” (such as an Exxon coal liquefaction plant or a Mobil oil shale installation subsidized by you, the taxpayer) would not be subject to any court review or environmental impact challenge by exposed communities. Citizen powers to bring injunctive actions would be curtailed. The right to go to court for review of alleged bureaucratic misdeeds is procedurally restricted. The president is given authority, subject not even to court review, to make a specific decision if the agency has not made a decision by the prescribed deadline.

The Department of Energy memo uses language which one would think was written by a foreign dictator’s lawyer given the task of undermining the due process of law while retaining its form. Consider this paragraph “…denying judicial review of specific types of issues which have traditionally been subject to review where it can be established that such review poses unacceptable uncertainty that is not offset by the perceived values of judicial review.”

A backlash of criticism against subsidizing synfuels is emerging. Economists writing in the Wall Street Journal and other publications are exposing the economic folly of these synfuel bills. Through production and buying subsidies, the legislation assures a supra-cartel price for these fuels.

In a report to the White House, four scientists–George Woodwell, Gordon MacDonald, Roger Revelle and C. David Keeling–calculated that liquid or gaseous fuels from coal release far more carbon dioxide than an equivalent amount of natural gas or coal.

“The carbon dioxide problem,” they write, “is one of the most important contemporary environmental problems, is a direct product of industrialization, threatens the stability of climates worldwide and therefore the stability of all nations, and can be controlled. Steps toward control are necessary now and should be a part of the national policy in management of sources of energy.”

The corporate energy industry craves for another agenda, however. Synfuels legislation keeps public hope for energy relief directed toward the big energy corporations instead of toward the far superior pathways of energy conservation and decentralized solar energy. Also, the interlock between big business and big government is tightened and less susceptible to consumer challenge by this legislation. And the builders of energy facilities like Bechtel, Fluor and Babcock and Wilcox eagerly await the new taxpayer guaranteed purchases of theirservices and equipment.

Inside the Carter circle, many aides are opposed to the synfuels subsidy juggernaut. “It’s a total waste,” one Carter adviser told me. “It’s more expensive than many kinds of solar,” said another. “Why won’t you speak out?” I asked. They admitted that the muzzle was on them, at least until Carter makes his stand known. They all said it is going to be tough even to contemplate a Carter veto against a congressional mob psychology.

At the Office of Management and Budget, economic analysts are trying steadfastly to make the White House see the entrenched economic disaster that these bills portend. “They won’t solve the energy problem in the least, but they will increase the federal deficit, drain away needed water in the West and make for a lot of pork barrel in the districts of powerful senators and representatives,” one OMB man confided.

The synfuels bills are written cleverly to include some geothermal and some biomass solar (alcohol)–enough to attract such old consumer supporters as Sens. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., and Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio. That is an indication of how much work the consumer and health movements have to do in the coming weeks.

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