INSIDE WASHINGTON/Local officials want input into energy policy
As temperatures rise and rolling blackouts sweep California, local officials are working overtime to avoid a major energy crisis this summer. Prompted by the fear that an electricity shortage could create health and safety problems and stunt their communities’ economic growth, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties have convened special meetings over the past several months to seek solutions to the nation’s energy problems.
In May, the USCM held a Best Practices summit to discuss energy conservation methods. That same month, officials from NACo met with energy and environmental representatives at the Western Interstate Region Conference to discuss the energy crisis. The topic also is expected to be one of the top subjects discussed at NACo’s annual conference this month in Philadelphia.
Local officials also want to make sure their voices are heard in the development of a national energy policy, realizing that such a policy is likely to be controversial and fought largely along partisan lines. “We know that dealing with the nation’s energy challenges requires local leadership,” says North Little Rock (Ark.) Mayor Patrick Hays.
Still, local officials are careful not to criticize either President Bush’s energy plan or the Congressional Democrats’ proposal, which differ sharply on such things as oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and nuclear power. “We have to put aside our [political differences] and really concentrate on putting forward our best creative minds and our best public policy,” says Santa Clara (Calif.) Mayor Judy Nadler.
The recent defection of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party likely has bought city and county officials more time to put their stamp on any emerging energy bill in Congress. Republican leaders had hoped to have an energy bill on Bush’s desk for signature by Independence Day, but Jeffords’ defection may have put the brakes on those efforts.
Local officials differ on the best solutions to the energy crisis, but there appears to be consensus that more power plants should be built and that an aggressive nationwide conservation program should be adopted. However, building power plants can be a difficult subject for local leaders who must contend with residents who do not want to live next door to the plants.
For example, San Jose (Calif.) Mayor Ron Gonzales had opposed the building of a natural gas-fueled power plant in his city, but he realized the state’s energy crisis and the plant’s endorsement by Gov. Gray Davis were high hurdles to overcome. In late May, Gonzales gave the project his stamp of approval, opting to negotiate the best possible deal with the power company for his city. Among other things, Gonzales was able to win concessions that will help protect the plant’s neighbors from air pollution.
Building nuclear power plants is more controversial. The idea has many opponents, although some mayors embrace it. Charlotte (N.C.) Mayor Pat McCrory considers his city “very fortunate” to have four operating nuclear units.
“Nuclear power is not only used, it is readily accepted,” McCrory says. “It is a clean industry, because we aren’t pumping pollution into the lakes or the air.” The issue of where to store spent reactor rods, which remain radioactive for years, remains a stumbling block.
Many local officials believe that building new plants and tapping into nuclear energy will work only in conjunction with energy conservation measures. A number of local agencies in California have pursued an aggressive public education campaign called “Watt’s Going On, California” to decrease energy use in the state. Last month, California residents cut their energy usage by 11 percent.
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.