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Initiatives on energy, environment find middle

Two events this week just might usher in an era where a balanced, pragmatic approach to energy and environmental issues replaces long-standing acrimony and uncertainty.

First the Obama administration announced plans to open up offshore areas for the possible drilling of oil. Though the West Coast was not included, large regions in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Coast would be available for exploration. Republican criticism of the plan was muted, which passes for high praise in the polarizing political climate that has paralyzed energy issues for a long time. Environmentalists were more upset, saying that short-term profits will not solve long-standing issues surrounding dependence on foreign oil and global warming.

In actuality, it isn’t clear how much oil is available in the Atlantic, says energy historian Daniel Yergin, because the latest estimates are decades old and exploratory technology wasn’t as advanced. This is more “drill, maybe, drill” than “drill, baby, drill.”

As for global warming, the production of sufficient alternative sources of energy is far into the future. In the meantime, the United States will need petroleum, and the less we have to depend on volatile regions like the Middle East the better.

The administration issued another ruling this week that should please environmentalists. Ending 30 years of wrangling, the feds announced greenhouse emissions standards for automobiles and light trucks, the first time greenhouse gases have been regulated under the Clean Air Act.

By 2016, the fuel economy average for new vehicles will be 35.5 miles per gallon, because the process of limiting emissions also yields more efficiency. This will raise the price of the average 2016 car by $1,000, but drivers could recoup as much as $3,000 in fuel savings over the life of a vehicle. Officials estimate that this will reduce greenhouse emissions by 30 percent between 2012 and 2016.

Because this is a national standard, states such as Washington and California can park their “clean-car” initiatives for the time being. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers praised this approach, noting that a patchwork of varying standards posed difficulties for auto engineers.

Left unanswered is what to do about the greenhouse gas emissions of utilities and other large industries. Few experts believe it’s best for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to impose rules, and the agency recently noted that it would not do so for at least the rest of the year. Cap-and-trade bills and other efforts to put a price on carbon have stalled in Congress.

Nonetheless, the decisions this week show that the key to progress on energy and environmental issues is to steer a middle course. It’s about time.


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