Repealing the Gas Tax

Desperately seeking to find an issue that puts President Clinton on the defensive, Senator Robert Dole wants to repeal the 4.3-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax that was enacted in 1993. Desperately determined never to let his Republican opponent outflank him from the right, Mr. Clinton is willing to go along — kinda that is.

This is what passes for energy policy by the nation’s political “leaders.” Ignore the long-delayed need to advance the fuel economy performance of motor vehicle manufacturers. Eliminate the federal speed limit, which in addition to costing annually about 6500 lives (according to the Department of Transportation) increases fuel consumption.

Instead, pander to the oil companies whose large gasoline price hike in recent weeks, set the stage for Dole’s move to take attention away from investigating the sudden rise. The oil industry will be contributing even more to the Dole campaign in gratitude.

The sign of a political leader is to recognize important problems that are not currently on the mass media’s list of news items and tackle them at their roots. Our nation’s energy crisis did not go away when the lines at the gas stations ended. The U.S. is importing over 50% of its petroleum and spending about 50c per gallon just guarding the Persian Gulf — a hidden tax on motorists-as-taxpayers that politicians scarcely mention. Whatever happened to energy independence which means energy self-sufficiency to avoid these geo-political entanglements around the globe?

Instead, our nation’s energy policy is going backwards, setting the stage for worse crunches ahead — either for consumers or taxpayers or both. California just buckled to auto industry pressure and shelved its mandate that by 1998, car makers must provide 2% of their sales in California as “zero-emission” vehicles which was interpreted as electric vehicles. No matter that the auto companies were given seven years of lead time. No matter that GM has periodically bragged about its electric vehicle program for the past 40 years.

The Republican-dominated Congress has frozen the Transportation Department rule-making on upgrading fuel efficiency through a rider on its appropriations bill. Clinton’s Department of transportation sweated out a one-tenth of one mile per gallon (to 20.7 mpg) fuel efficiency rise for light trucks, vans and utility vehicles. This is 1996 and these vehicles barely meet that ridiculously low mpg average.

The Washington Post recently reported: “if federal gasoline taxes are cut by 4.3$ a gallon, as presidential candidate Senator Robert J. Dole (R-KS), has proposed, the oil industry rather than the nation’s drivers will get most of the benefit initially, a number of economists and energy experts said.” Energy expert Philip K. Verleger, Jr. was more to the point. He called Dole’s proposal “nothing more and nothing less than refiners’ benefit bill.” “It will transfer upwards of three billion dollars from the U.S. Treasury to the pockets of refiners and gasoline marketers.”

Although Clinton has spoken on many a subject, energy is not one of them. Clinton backers from the consumer and environmental quarters thought in 1992 that he would make energy conservation and renewal energy (mainly solar) the linchpins of conversion to energy self-sufficiency and, one might add, efficiency. Forget it. He hasn’t even gotten his own government’s energy consumption on a systemic efficiency uptick.

Dole’s principal contribution in the energy area is to be the champion of tax subsidies to ethanol producers who are among his major financial contributors. There is no comparable lobby in the solar and energy conservation area to buy this Senator For Sale -­ the title of a calm, detailed new book by a former staffer.

Meanwhile, the atomic power industry, having inflicted hundreds of billions of dollars of costs on future generations should these progeny have to clean up the radioactive mess at the dumps and at the 115 or so nuclear plants that will be mothballed, still is receiving federal subsidies. Clinton’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission has overlooked numerous safety problems at these plants. It took some courageous whistle-blowers to finally get the NRC’s recent attention to the deficiencies at the Millstone plants in Connecticut.

Drift, avoidance and trivializing energy policy is the mark of both Clinton and Dole. At this pace, there will be more so-called sound-bite sallies from one candidate or the other which focus on symptoms, ignore causes and therefore fundamental solutions.

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