he last three years have given the country more than enough reasons to re-examine its energy policies: a power crisis in California, a blackout in the East, global warming, sharply higher prices for gasoline, tighter markets for natural gas and now a stubborn war in the heart of the biggest oil patch in the world. Clearly, we need a disciplined program to use more efficiently the fossil fuels we now have, coupled with aggressive efforts to develop renewable sources of energy. Yet neither a divided Congress nor a disengaged administration seems capable of delivering that strategy.
There is, however, one cause for cheer, and that is the increasing willingness of states and the private sector to fill the policy vacuum. The most obvious recent example is California's ambitious proposal to require automakers to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming. Less obvious but no less important is the palpable interest at the state level and in the investment community in alternative energy sources — not just familiar sources like wind power, which is becoming increasingly cost-effective, but also more exotic sources like biofuels from plants and other organic matter. California's treasurer, Phil Angelides, has persuaded two state pension funds to risk $450 million in venture capital to promote alternative fuels and new technologies.
Meanwhile, 13 states have adopted mandatory "renewable portfolio standards" requiring that a fixed percentage of energy sold in-state come from alternative fuel sources. This number will almost certainly grow. With Gov. George Pataki's backing, New York's Public Service Commission has proposed that fully one-fourth of the state's energy be generated by renewable sources within the next decade. And last month, governors of nine Western states formally signed on to a plan developed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico that commits the region to developing 30,000 megawatts of electricity — about 15 percent of current demand — from renewable sources by 2015.
None of this eliminates the need for unified federal policies; a crazy-quilt pattern of state laws could ultimately do more harm than good. Tough rules on global warming emissions in one region, for instance, could persuade businesses to move to states with weaker laws. National renewable energy goals — which Congress has repeatedly rejected — would also make sense. Ultimately, only Washington has the resources to move the country to a plainer and more efficient energy future.
What the states and even traditional fossil fuel companies like BP — which has committed itself to major reductions of greenhouse gases — are telling us is that they are prepared to help guide that transformation, even as Congress and the administration drag their feet. Their efforts reflect a real longing to do something meaningful. They may also have the salutary effect of forcing energy-related issues, as complicated as they can be, onto the campaign agenda. What's important here is not the momentary inconvenience of higher gas prices, but more fundamental matters involving the environment, health and — given our dependence on imported fuels — national security.