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--NATURAL GAS: THE CONGRESSIONAL FLIP-FLOP. A quarter-century ago, Congress enacted the Powerplant and Industrial Fuel Use Act, which banned after 1990 the burning of natural gas by power plants to generate electricity. The reasoning: because that fuel was in short supply and was most widely used to heat homes--it goes to half of all residences--it should be preserved for that purpose. Pete Domenici, the Republican Senator from New Mexico, told his colleagues that year, "Almost since we found natural gas we have been busy finding ways to abuse it, waste it, literally throw it away on uses that we are now finding are absolutely the wrong thing to do, and basic among those that are wasteful are ... the use of natural gas to generate electricity."
As the years slipped by, Congress reversed course. Prodded by the Reagan Administration, lawmakers repealed the ban in 1987 and opened the door to construction of natural gas--guzzling power plants. Three years later, they amended the environmental rules to discourage the burning of coal--America's most plentiful fuel--to produce electricity. Predictably, the generation of electricity with natural gas, which had fallen 17% from 1979 to 1987, has shot up 151% since then, reaching a record 686 billion kW-h last year. Nearly a fifth of all U.S. electricity is now generated with natural gas, and 88% of all new generating plants built in the past decade use the fuel. Meanwhile, U.S. production of natural gas has remained stagnant at 19 trillion cu. ft. a year, about the same as a decade ago. But the U.S. consumed 22 trillion cu. ft., up 8% during that time. Because natural gas moves more efficiently by pipeline than tanker (for which it needs to be liquefied), the difference comes mostly from Canada. Now the Canadians are running low, and exports to the U.S. are expected to be flat, or possibly even decline.
During these same years, Congress prohibited drilling for natural gas offshore for environmental reasons. Earlier, in the 1970s, it had studied and then rejected building a natural-gas pipeline from the Arctic, where there are substantial gas reserves, south through Canada to serve the U.S. The worry was that Canada would hold the U.S. economic hostage; in fact, Canada has become the largest supplier of all types of energy to the U.S.
This time around, the energy bill calls for taxpayer subsidies to build a needlessly longer and far more costly pipeline that follows a roundabout path. Called the Southern Route, it starts at the North Slope and heads south along the Alaskan highway before turning east into Canada. A far more direct path, called the Northern Route, would have cut across the north coast of Alaska and hooked up in Canada with the recently announced Mackenzie Valley pipeline. Both lines ultimately would feed into trunk lines in Alberta and serve the U.S. market.
Why the meandering route? In 2001 the Alaska state legislature enacted a law blocking the cheaper northern pipeline. Lawmakers wanted a pork-barrel project to keep construction and supplier jobs in the state. State representative Jim Whitaker, a Fairbanks Republican who sponsored the measure, summed up the state's attitude: "The legislature has a responsibility to ensure that Alaska gas goes to market in a manner that is in the maximum best interest of the people of the state of Alaska." Congress has agreed.