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Will Congress Heed Public on Energy?

Back in the 1970s, when foreign oil producers had the United States over a barrel and long lines at gas stations were common, the fight for energy independence became what Jimmy Carter called ''the moral equivalent of war.''

Since then, there's been a glut of oil, and the fact that last year for the first time the country imported most of its oil passed with little notice. At the same time, however, concerns about the environmental side effects of traditional energy sources - air pollution, acid rain, nuclear waste, possible climate change - have combined with advances in efficiency measures and renewable energy sources to change public attitudes.

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Large majorities of Americans now favor federal spending on renewable energy and efficiency over fossil fuel and nuclear power. A survey conducted by Republican pollster Vincent Breglio after last year's GOP romp in congressional elections found 64 percent (including 60 percent of Republicans) picking efficiency and renewables like solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower as deserving the ''highest priority'' in research and development spending.

At the same time, according to this poll, 73 percent (including 69 percent of GOP respondents) said nuclear energy and fossil fuels should be the first to be cut. Why, then, do the 1996 energy appropriations bills expected to be taken up by the full House of Representatives this week do the opposite?

While traditional energy sources are trimmed a modest amount (13 percent from fossil fuels and 11 percent from nuclear fission), the budgets for energy efficiency and renewables get whacked 28 percent and 44 percent, respectively. It's almost as if lawmakers looked at what Americans want in energy research - and then marched off in the opposite direction. Could pork-barrel politics or campaign contributions have anything to do with it?

A better-balanced energy budget may yet emerge. A bipartisan amendment would restore $44.9 million for renewables (still leaving it with a 32 percent cut). Another amendment would cut $20 million for development of gas-cooled nuclear reactors, a technology rejected twice by the National Academy of Sciences. A third amendment would eliminate the Advanced Light Water Reactor Program, saving another $40 million.

In all, according to the Cato Institute, the Energy Department funds more than $6 billion in what the conservative think tank calls ''corporate welfare.'' Earlier this year, a coalition of environmentalists, tax reformers, and free marketeers issued the ''Green Scissors Report,'' which included more than $14 billion in federal energy-program savings.

In other words, there are legitimate targets for budget-cutters without stifling the research that represents the future for energy. It's not just environmentalists and ''alternative energy'' advocates who think this; so do many business people. The Business Council for a Sustainable Energy Future, a group of more than 100 firms ranging from Fortune 500 companies to small entrepreneurs, wrote to House and Senate appropriations committees:

''Energy efficiency and renewable energy programs ... produce new and improved products that create tens of thousands of domestic jobs, strengthen US competitiveness in rapidly growing international markets, and, through cost-shared partnerships with the private sector, leverage limited federal resources in support of technology development and deployment.''

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While this group foresees ''what promises to be a vast global market for renewable energy technologies,'' the US has reduced its federal investment in energy research and development 75 percent over the past 17 years. Meanwhile, Japan, Germany, and other countries are forging ahead.

''The European Community spends approximately $200 million each year to encourage wind energy development,'' reports the American Wind Energy Association. ''The U.S. will spend $47 million on wind in 1995, and the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment would cut that to $10 million in FY 1996.''

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