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Unhappy Earth Day

THE APPROVAL yesterday by the House of Representatives of an energy bill lacking any strong measures for fossil-fuel conservation aptly symbolizes the failure of the United States on this Earth Day to take seriously the threats to the planet's resources and climate. At a time when the international community badly needs leadership in providing both economic growth and sustainability, President Bush is on the sidelines while Britain's Tony Blair has stepped forward. The leader of the world's largest economy, not its fourth-largest, should be in the forefront.

The past year's sharp increase in the price of petroleum, which has been a factor in the recent sluggishness of the US economy, should have set off alarm bells in Washington as all the warnings by scientists about climate change have failed to do. The world is burning up its limited supply of fossil fuels at a rate that is putting pressure on energy supplies and adding to the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. But in debating the energy bill yesterday the House rejected by a 254-177 vote a proposal to increase the fuel efficiency of automobiles.

Even some environmentalists criticize as quixotic attempts like this to use regulatory power to mandate oil conservation, preferring instead to see Washington generously subsidize new car models that use engineering improvements and hybrid gas-electric motors to reduce fuel consumption. But the House energy bill is weak on carrots as well as sticks. If the Senate cannot produce a bill with more conservation and fewer giveaways to oil and gas companies than the House, the nation is better off with no bill at all.

In the past, sharp accelerations in oil prices have usually been the result of supply disruptions tied to specific political events, like the 1973 Mideast war or the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979. This time the major factor appears to be the unexpectedly rapid economic growth of China and India. Both economies are likely to continue to grow, bringing closer the day when international oil will be so tapped out that production actually starts to decline. When that happens, the increases in oil and gasoline prices will dwarf the spikes that consumers have suffered recently.

Both China and India, like the United States, plan to meet much of their future demand for electricity with generating plants that will burn coal, the fuel that emits the most carbon dioxide. These added emissions will greatly exceed the reduced greenhouse gas levels that all the Kyoto-signing countries hope to achieve. On this 35th anniversary of Earth Day, the world is at a pivotal point in its use of its resources, but the single biggest consumer of those resources, the United States, still scorns conservation.

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